Hospital chaplains can be a health hazard, a woman patient says

The Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese in New South Wales has acknowledged that a former hospital chaplain sexually abused a woman patient.

Fr James Hughes (also known as Fr Jamie Hughes or Fr Jim Hughes) was born in Ireland on 15 May 1920 and was ordained in 1946. He ministered briefly in Hobart in 1947-49 and then in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese in New South Wales from 1949 until 1990. In 1977-81, he was a chaplain at the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Waratah (a suburb of Newcastle, NSW).

In August 2002, a woman (Marie) notified the New South Wales police that she had been indecently assaulted by Hughes while she was a patient at this hospital in March 1981. After beginning an investigation, police found that Hughes had died in 1996 and he therefore could not be prosecuted.

Backed by Broken Rites, Marie then approached the Catholic Church's "Towards Healing" office. A private investigator, hired by the church, confirmed to Towards Healing that evidence "exists to support the complaint."

In mid-September 2007, the Newcastle Herald saw Father Hughes mentioned on the Broken Rites website. The newspaper phoned Broken Rites, seeking to interview the victim. Marie agreed to speak to the paper, as shown below:-

Speaking out over sins of the fathers

Newcastle Herald
24 September 2007, page 5

Marie was 31 when a Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese priest walked into her Mater Hospital room, shut the door and tried to molest her.

More than 25 years later, and after paying for a private investigator to look into the matter, the diocese has accepted that it happened.

And Marie is trying to restore her faith in the church after evidence some in authority knew that the late Father Jim Hughes had offended before.

Marie said that in 1981 Father Hughes gave her communion while she was in a hospital bed and he later said that while doing so "he wondered what I would look like with no panties on".

"He started saying how beautiful I was and that God had put me on Earth for him to enjoy," Marie said.

When she screamed and fought him off, the priest moved away and warned there would be "no use in you telling anyone because no one will believe you".

But the doctor she immediately reported the incident to did believe her, and raised it with two senior staff who were Sisters of Mercy nuns.

In a statement in 2004 supporting Marie's version of what happened in 1981, the now very senior doctor said he remembered being told by one of the nuns that Father Hughes "had had previous incidents, that he had drinking problems and probably early dementia".

The priest worked in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese from 1949-1990. He is listed in the 1979 National Council of Priests directory as working at Waratah with convicted pedophile priest James Fletcher. Father Hughes died in 1996.

"After speaking with the hierarchy, I was told the priest [who was acting as hospital chaplain] was transferred to non-clinical duties," the doctor said.

Marie did not lodge a complaint with the diocese until 2002, after finding the cross on a chain she had been wearing around her neck when the 1981 incident occurred.

In a letter to Newcastle police Superintendent Charles Haggart in January 2007, diocese professional conduct unit manager Helen Keevers requested police information about Father Hughes that was collected during an investigation five or six years ago.

"Outcomes from the inquiry [into Marie's allegations] will assist the diocese in developing a supportive strategy for [Marie] and any known victims of inappropriate behaviour by Father Hughes," Ms Keevers said.

Marie agreed to speak publicly, on behalf of herself and other victims who had been abused by priests.

"It's time the church was held accountable for its sins," she said.

"All this ducking and weaving and clamming up has got to stop."

Marie said she would prefer that the abuse had not happened. "I'm not the sinner here," she said. "I will not sit down and shut up."

— Newcastle Herald, 24 September 2007


Fr James Hughes ministered in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese around the same time as other sex-offenders, including Fr Vince Ryan. Indeed, the mother of a Ryan victim tried to tell Fr Hughes about Ryan's sex-offences.

In 1996 this mother was interviewed by detectives who were investigating Father Vince Ryan. According to the police file, this mother said Father Hughes refused to listen when she tried to tell him about Ryan.

The mother told police: "After talking with Father Hughes about the subject he [Father Hughes] got up and walked away from me and he didn't want to know. He left me sitting there . . . and I haven't been to church since. I lost my faith in the church." (Newcastle Herald, 24 September 2007, in an article about Father Vince Ryan's police file.)