Victims of this priest obtained justice after 36 years

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 14 April 2019

Broken Rites has researched a Catholic priest, Father Gregory Laurence Ferguson, who was sentenced to a total of five years' jail at two trials in 2007 for sexual offences against boys in a Tasmanian boarding school in the early 1970s.

Ferguson is a member of the Society of Mary (also known as the Marist Fathers). The Marist Fathers are not to be confused with the Marist Brothers, who are a separate religious order.

Ferguson began training for the priesthood in the Marist Fathers in 1955, aged 18.

The Marist Fathers run some parishes in Australia and are involved in running a few secondary schools. After his ordination, Ferguson worked mainly as a teacher in Marist Fathers schools until 1972. One of these was Marist College (also called Marist Regional College) in the town of Burnie in Tasmania's north-west. Father Ferguson taught there in 1970 and 1971 when he was aged 33 to 34. It was then a boys-only school.

As it was a boarding school, Ferguson was entrusted with the care and custody of the boys at night as well as during the day. Ferguson had his own bedroom on the school premises. He sexually abused the boys in his room.

As is usual in such church-abuse cases, the boys were intimidated into silence. But, three decades later, in 2004-2006, the cover-up collapsed as the adult survivors tried to deal with their hurt.

Preliminary proceedings

Broken Rites began following the progress of this case during preliminary hearings in a Tasmanian magistrates court in May 2004.

Originally, in 2004-2005, the Ferguson charges related to six boys at the school. These were not necessarily Ferguson's only victims — they were merely those from whom the police obtained a signed statement.

When the cases reached the Tasmanian Supreme Court in Launceston in early 2007, the prosecution proceeded in relation to three of the boys — in two separate trials.

The first trial, early 2007

In the first trial, which began in March 2007, Ferguson was charged with committing sex crimes against two of the boys, aged about 13, at Marist College in 1971.

The jury found Ferguson guilty of maintaining a sexual relationship with one boy and indecently assaulting the other boy. The first crime encompassed three indecent assaults, so the verdicts amounted to findings that Ferguson indecently assaulted the first boy on three occasions and the second boy on one occasion.

A Broken Rites researcher has obtained a transcript of Supreme Court Justice Ewan Crawford's remarks at the sentencing. Describing the offences, the judge said:

"Both complainants were boys whose parents had entrusted their care to the college and its staff... The crimes, which were committed in the accused's room in the priests' quarters. He invited or directed boys to his room for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity with them.

"On the first occasion on count 1, two boys came to his room. Under the pretence of an intention to draw a simulated tattoo on the back of one of them, he had him lie on the bed with his top up. He then masturbated over the boy and ejaculated onto his back. He told them not to tell any one.

"On the second occasion, the boy who was assaulted the first time returned to the room on his own. The accused fondled his genitals and had the boy do the same to him.

"On the third occasion the same boy came to his room and he pulled the boy's pyjamas down, disrobed himself and rubbed his penis against the boy's buttocks until he ejaculated on him.

"The occasion in the second count [regarding the second boy] also involved a boy coming to his room. Claiming he had a sore shoulder he asked the boy to rub it for him. Pretending that the boy was not rubbing the right spot, he had him lie on the bed so that he could demonstrate to him what he meant. He had the boy take his shirt off. He then lay on top of the boy and rubbed his penis against his lower back or upper buttocks and ejaculated onto him."

The impact on the victims

Justice Crawford said that Ferguson's offences "were relatively serious crimes, because of the breaches of trust involved in them and the ages of the boys."

"The first complainant appears to have been badly affected psychologically by events in his childhood that included these [assaults]...

"The second complainant attributes all of the behavioural problems in his life to the incident with the accused. He says that as a result of it, he lost all faith in the priests and staff at the school, became uncontrollable and left school at a young age with an inadequate education..."

On 15 May 2007, Justice Crawford sentenced Ferguson (then aged 70) sentenced to two years in jail.

The second trial, late 2007

While Ferguson was in jail, a separate second trial (with a different jury) was held regarding another boy — a 12-year-old boarder at Marist College in 1970. Ferguson was charged with maintaining a sexual relationship with this boy.

In the course of this trial, which began in September 2007, the court was told that Ferguson had committed up to seven indecent assaults against this boy.

As usual in such multiple trials, the second jury could not be told that Ferguson had been convicted by a jury in May 2007 regarding two other boys. However, the second trial struck a problem when a witness carelessly referred to the May 2007 trial. After a defence lawyer questioned this witness's account of events, the witness exclaimed: "That's a joke. He's already been convicted. That's why he's sitting there."

Justice Crawford said he understood the outburst but had little choice than to discharge the jury.

A fresh jury was empanelled. In November 2007, after hearing all the evidence, this jury found Ferguson guilty.

Before the sentencing, the victim's impact statement was read to the court. The victim stated that it was hard to put into words how he felt, but for nearly 40 years he had experienced shame, embarrassment, loneliness and guilt. He said that, because of the abuse, he would not let his daughters be christened as Catholics or attend church schools.

He said he still has trouble trusting men.

Sentencing Ferguson on 13 December 2007, Justice Ewan Crawford said the victim had been psychologically distressed by the crime, and was still disturbed by the events at Marist College.

"Hopefully he will be able to move on with his life and leave his memories of what happened in the background."

Justice Ewan Crawford sentenced Ferguson to three years imprisonment with an 18 month non-parole period. The judge ordered that this sentence be added to Ferguson’s May 2007 sentence. This meant that Ferguson now had a total of five years imprisonment, and he would .have to serve 18 months behind bars before becoming eligible to apply for parole

Other victims

The question arises: What else did Ferguson do during his long career as a priest? At the May 2007 sentencing, the judge said: "He [Ferguson] undertook teaching duties until 1972. It is possible that he ceased to be a teacher following complaints about his misbehaviour with boys, but I have not been informed that is the case and it is immaterial in the sentencing process. From 1972 until his retirement in 2002 he was a parish priest in various parishes."

Broken Rites has checked a few of the annual Australian Catholic directories to trace Ferguson's movements after Burnie, Tasmania. For example, the 1979 directory listed him at St Bernard's parish, Claremont, near Hobart. In 1988, he was listed at Ashgrove, Brisbane, where the Marist Brothers had a secondary school. During the early 1990s, he was living at Marist Fathers' residences in Sydney. In 1996-97, he was an assistant priest at the Star of the Sea parish in Gladstone, Queensland. In 1999 and 2000, he was at St Aidan's parish, Rooty Hill in Sydney's west.

After Ferguson's first sentencing in May 2007, Queensland's "Gladstone Observer" newspaper informed the people of Gladstone (on 17 May 2007) about Father Ferguson's conviction.

There is no way of knowing the total number of boys who were sexually abused by Ferguson during his career. There is still potential for any fresh Ferguson complainants from Tasmania to contact the Tasmanian police sexual-offences unit or the Tasmanian Director of Public Prosecutions.

Any Ferguson victims in New South Wales or Queensland or elsewhere would need to consult the police sexual-offences unit in their own state, so that further a prosecution could be launched in the other state.

Any civil action against the Marist Fathers, seeking compensation for the Marist Fathers' action in inflicting Ferguson on the victims, would be aimed against the order's Australian headquarters in Sydney.

As well as working in Australian parishes or secondary schools, the Marist Fathers also do "missionary" work in the Pacific - and this is a cause for alarm in view of the Ferguson story.

Other sex-abuse cases in Burnie

The town of Burnie has found itself at the centre of numerous sexual abuse allegations between church figures and boys dating back to the early 1970s, prompting claims by some abuse victims of a "golden circle" of pedophiles that operated across denominations.

As well as Father Ferguson, another priest who was associated with Marist College was prominent Tasmanian priest Monsignor Philip Green, who was convicted in 2004 of indecently assaulting a young man.

In 2005, a former physical education teacher at Marist College, Paul Ronald Goldsmith (a former trainee priest), was jailed for sexual offences against boys in the Burnie area in the 1970s and 1980s.

Disgraced former Test umpire, Steve Randell, was jailed for sexual offences against young girls at the college in the early 1980s (after the school became co-educational).

Two former Tasmanian Anglican priests, Louis Daniels and Garth Hawkins, who have since been jailed for sex crimes against boys, also committed their offences in the Burnie area in the 1970s and 1980s and knew Randell through the church.