The church finally admits the child-sex crimes of Father Tony Bongiorno

  • By a Broken Rites researcher article updated 11 November 2021

According to Broken Rites research, the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese has been forced to admit that Father Anthony (Tony) Bongiorno committed sexual crimes against children during his 30 years working in Melbourne parishes. Anthony Bongiorno began training for the priesthood about 1960, aged 25. Bongiorno's child-sex crimes were covered up until some of his victims exposed him in the mid-1990s. The total number of Father Bongiorno's victims is unknown. For example, in 1980, a woman (named Maria James) learned that her son (aged 11) was a Bongiorno victim but this woman was murdered before she could expose Bongiorno about her son's abuse.

Compensation paid to victims

A Melbourne man (Broken Rites will refer to him as "Rex", not his real name) has been awarded compensation from the Victorian Government's Crimes Compensation Tribunal for sexual crimes committed upon him by Father Bongiorno. The tribunal, in 1997, accepted evidence that Father Bongiorno had indecently assaulted the boy repeatedly at St Ambrose's parish in Sydney Road, Brunswick beginning in 1981-82. The compensation was for the damage that this church-related abuse caused to the victim's adolescent development.

Bongiorno has also been investigated by the commissioner on sexual abuse for the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese, Peter O'Callaghan QC. Mr O'Callaghan accepted that Bongiorno had committed child-sex abuse while at Brunswick. The archdiocese paid some compensation to some of Bongiorno's victims.

Rex's story

According to legal depositions, Rex testified that in 1981 Father Tony Bongiorno invited him to stay overnight at the Brunswick presbytery, where he shared the priest's bed. Bongiorno touched the boy's genitals in the bedroom and again later while showering with the boy. This genital touching continued regularly for years.

In 1985, Rex told a social worker about Bongiorno's sexual abuse.

When the Catholic diocesan office heard the complaint, it asked another priest (who was a close friend of Bongiorno from seminary days) to "investigate". Bongiorno denied the allegation and the "investigator" reported this orally to the archdiocese, which dropped the matter.

The Children's Court made an order banning Rex from Bongiorno's presbytery but Bongiorno continued to have Rex living at the presbytery, on and off, often sleeping in the priest's bed.

Bongiorno provided Rex with food, presents (clothes and watches) and money (amounting to about $3,000).

Three complainants

In 1995, aged 25, Rex realised that his adolescent development had been damaged. He contacted police who soon found two more alleged victims of Bongiorno.

At the Melbourne Magistrates Court in February 1996, police charged Bongiorno (then aged 61) with multiple counts of indecent assault (genital touching) involving three boys, "Rex" (when aged 11 onwards), "Fred" (when aged 8) and "Adam" (when aged 12) between 1981 and 1987. There was also one charge of sexual penetration (oral sex) involving Fred. Bongiorno pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Magistrate Cotterell committed him for trial, commenting that the witnesses appeared to be credible and that there was indeed enough evidence for a jury to convict him. As people left the courtroom, the vicar-general of the Melbourne archdiocese (Monsignor Gerald Cudmore) was at the rear of the courtroom, handing out a statement inviting victims of church sexual-abuse to contact the archdiocese [that is, instead of reporting the crimes to the proper authority, the police].

In August 1996, at the Melbourne County Court, the prosecution presented Bongiorno for trial regarding Rex and Fred. Rex and Fred are not connected but they gave similar evidence.

A Broken Rites researcher was present in court, taking notes about the proceedings.

Two other priests lived at Bongiorno's presbytery. Father Gordon Gebbie, who lived at the presbytery in 1981-2, testified in court that he saw Rex in Bongiorno's bedroom and bathroom. [However, Gebbie neglected to report this matter to the child-protection authorities.]

From time to time, various laypersons also lived in the presbytery, paying rent. Three laypersons testified that they saw Rex, or at other times Fred, in Bongiorno's bed. Witnesses also said they knew that Bongiorno was showering with Rex and later with Fred. One witness, Anne, said she and others complained to the diocesan headquarters about this in 1993.

Fred's story

Fred, an altar boy, said that one Sunday in 1983, he soiled his pants. After Mass, Bongiorno took him to the presbytery and showered him. He said Bongiorno then touched the boy's genitals on the bed and performed oral sex on the boy. Fred said he was upset and struggling; he tried to phone his mother to get her to collect him but Bongiorno hung up the phone. Fred did not tell his mother about the assault because he was too ashamed. Fred said Bongiorno repeated the assault on later occasions in 1983-7 and tried to get Fred to perform oral sex on the priest. Fred said Bongiorno used to give him money.

The court was told that both Rex and Fred had immigrant parents and both were having trouble with the parents. This made the boys vulnerable to Bongiorno.

An old Spanish custom

Three witnesses (Andrew, Anne and Greg) said they had heard Bongiorno referring (approvingly), on several occasions, to "the old Spanish custom where the altar boy sleeps with the parish priest".

On one of these occasions, Bongiorno was sitting in a chair with Fred on his knee.

While Bongiorno was in the witness box, the prosecution asked him: "Well, is it really an old Spanish custom?"

Bongiorno replied "Yes".

In response to Judge Crossley, Bongiorno said: "The Catholic Church in Spain, Italy and the Philippines is quite different from in Australia. As students for the priesthood we were often amazed at these differences and we often used to refer to this or that old Spanish custom."

Separate trials

The prosecution wanted the cases of Rex and Fred heard by one jury, so that the jury would know that there was more than one complainant. However, the church's lawyer sought to have a separate jury for each boy. Judge Crossley granted this request. Therefore, each jury was told about only one boy. And each jury thought that there was only one complainant and that his evidence was "uncorroborated". (In such cases, a jury will assume that "he can’t be guilty or he would have done it to more than one victim".)

Because these alleged assaults were "historical" (that is, they occurred in the past), the judge warned each jury to be cautious about returning a guilty verdict. The Bongiorno juries followed the judge's advice.

Therefore, the first jury (regarding Rex) acquitted Bongiorno and so did the second jury (regarding Fred). The second jury was shocked when it learned, after leaving the courtroom, that there had been a previous victim. To save expense, the Director of Public Prosecutions cancelled the third trial (regarding Adam).

Justice at last

However, Bongiorno's victims were able to seek justice through the Victorian Government's Crimes Compensation Tribunal. The Tribunal's decision, accepting that Bongiorno had committed child-sex crimes, was reported in the Melbourne Age, 8 November 1997. (About a year after this, this system of taxpayer-funded compensation was curtailed by Victoria's Liberal state government; but Victorian victims can still claim compensation from the church.)

The Bongiorno victims also were able to obtain some financial compensation through the Melbourne archdiocesan sex-abuse commissioner, Peter O'Callaghan QC.

After all this adverse publicity, the Melbourne archdiocese kept Bongiorno "on leave", instead of having him return to his parish.

Bongiorno died on 15 February 2002. A funeral service was held at the church of St Peter and St Paul, South Melbourne, attended by a number of priests. The congregation was told that Father Graham Redfern had a leading role in arranging the funeral service.

Bongiorno's parishes

By combing through the annual Australian Catholic Directories, Broken Rites has compiled a list of Bongiorno's parish appointments in Melbourne:

  • Maidstone (Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish, Footscray West), late 1960s;
  • Brunswick West (St Joseph's parish), early 1970s;
  • Fawkner (St Mark's parish), mid 1970s;
  • Thornbury (St Mary's parish), late 1970s to 1980;
  • Reservoir North parish, 1981;
  • Brunswick (St Ambrose's parish, 287 Sydney Road), May 1981 to 1995.

Murder investigation

In 1980, a woman named Maria James (aged 38) was murdered (by stabbing) in Father Bongiorno's Thornbury parish. The Victoria Police homicide squad investigated but was unable to solve the murder.

In 2012 (32 years after Maria's murder), Senior Sergeant Ron Iddles obtained some new evidence from Maria's youngest son Adam, who was 11 when his mother was murdered. Adam James told Sgt Iddles that when he was a young boy in the Thornbury parish, he was sexually abused by Father Bongiorno. In his sworn statement, Adam James, who is intellectually impaired, said he told his mother about the sexual abuse just days before his mother was murdered and that his mother intended confronting Father Bongiorno about the sexual abuse.

Sergeant Iddles decided to obtain the DNA of the late Father Bongiorno, so that this could be compared with DNA which the killer of Maria James left at the murder scene in 1980. However, Bongirono's sister refused to help police to obtain the Bongiorno DNA. If she had agreed, her DNA might have helped to clear or implicate her brother, according to Sgt Iddles.

Sgt Iddles considered the abuse of Adam James, along with other information (from a new witness who claimed he saw Father Bongiorno with blood on him on the day of the murder), was enough to warrant exhuming the priest’s body to get his DNA. Therefore, in 2012, Sergeant Iddles asked Victoria's coroner for permission to dig up the body of Father Anthony Bongiorno to obtain his DNA. The coroner, however, refused because (he said) there was not sufficient evidence for making such an order.

Sgt Iddles left the Homicide Squad in 2014 to become secretary of Victoria's police union. Cold-case squad detectives issued a press release in 2015 to say they were no longer investigating Father Anthony Bongiorno regarding the Maria James murder.

In November 2018, the Acting State Coroner for the state of Victoria (Iain West) said he would reopen the coronial investigation into the death of Maria James.