Priest damaged a teenager's life, says judge

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Broken Rites has helped a victim ("Don") to convict a senior Melbourne Catholic priest, Father John Barry Gwillim, who had sexually abused him in his teens, 25 years earlier.

In Melbourne County Court on 15 December 2003, Father Gwillim, 71, pleaded guilty to five counts of indecent assault and four counts of gross indecency against the boy at age 15 in 1979-81. Judge Fred Davey sentenced Gwillim to 32 months jail (suspended). The judge said Gwillim damaged Don's adolescent development.

The court was told that in 1979 Father J. Barry Gwillim (known by his middle name, Barry) was in charge of St Peter's Catholic parish at Keilor East in Melbourne's north-west. Don (born 1964) was a student at a Catholic secondary school in Gwillim's region. Gwillim noticed the boy in a city street and recognised the school uniform. He spoke to Don, offering to drive him home. On the way home, Gwillim stopped his BMW car in a quiet street and forced the boy to engage in mutual masturbation.

Thereafter, Gwillim repeatedly lay in wait for him after the boy's late-afternoon swimming lessons. The abuse, which included requiring the boy to perform oral sex on the priest, also occurred in a motel room and on church property (in Gwillim's church house). The abuse continued for several years but incidents after February 1981 were not included in the charges.

According to court documents, Don said he did not have a good relationship with his parents and had difficulty coping with the demands and hazards of adolescence. He therefore became reliant on Gwillim for comfort and support. Don said Gwillim promised to "help" him but in fact Gwillim merely used him for sex.

Don told police that Gwillim required him to remain secretive about the sexual abuse. Don said he could not report the abuse at the time because he knew that his Catholic family would not want him to defame the clergy. He said this secrecy made him feel that he was complicit in this illicit behaviour. Thus, his adolescent development was disrupted and he became involved in drugs.

In 2000, aged 36, Don phoned Broken Rites to discuss options for gaining justice. Shortly afterwards, Don was jailed for drug-related crimes. In 2002, while in jail, Don finally reported Gwillim's crimes to the police. Don asked if a Broken Rites representative could be present at his interview in the jail and police agreed to this.

[Don is similar to other church-abuse victims who typically disclose the childhood abuse when they are aged in their thirties, especially when they are re-examining their life during a period of personal crisis. Reviewing his damaged life, Don felt hurt by the fact that he was a convicted criminal while Gwillim was still a respectable "celibate" Catholic priest.]

When detectives started investigating the case, they found (in police files) that Gwillim had previously come to the notice of police when he was found loitering around Melbourne public toilets.

The detectives obtained evidence proving that Gwillim knew Don. (Some church offenders deny remembering their victims). When police confronted Gwillim with this knowledge, he admitted knowing and abusing Don.

The prosecutor said that Gwillim told a psychologist (for the defence) in 2003 that he had admitted to a fellow priest more than 20 years ago about sexually abusing Don. But the church did nothing about Gwillim and allowed him to continue abusing.

Gwillim became a priest about 1958. His parishes included Highett (1970s), East Keilor (1979-99) and Black Rock-Beaumaris (2000). In 2001-2 he did relieving ministry, while living first at the Coburg presbytery and later at 31 Molesworth Street, Coburg.

Gwillim had an expensive legal team (including a Queen's Counsel), financed from church sources. One of his two days in court probably cost about $20,000. To protect the church, the defence unsuccessfully tried to delete offences in 1980-1 that occurred on church property.

The defence also sought a suspended sentence. Three Melbourne priests - Fr Gerard Dowling, Fr Bob Maguire and Fr William Jordan - gave "character" evidence. They said jail would be "bad" for Gwillim (not much concern about damage already done to the victim, though). The defence also tabled written references from former archbishop Frank Little, several bishops and former Jesuit leader Fr Paul J. Duffy.

Sentencing Gwillim, Judge Davey said Gwillim had disgraced himself as a priest and this public exposure is a part of the punishment.

Advised by Broken Rites, Don later successfully sought compensation from the Melbourne Catholic diocese. He gained suitable employment and began rebuilding his life. In December 2005, he sent Broken Rites a Christmas card, saying thanks for all the help.