Church accepts two complaints about girls being sexually abused by a priest

In May 2008, the Catholic Church's Professional Standards Office in New South Wales "accepted the veracity" of two complaints about Father Francis Donovan, a priest of the Redemptorist Fathers religious order. Two women, acting separately, had complained in late 2007 that Donovan sexually abused them when they were young girls in the city of Maitland (north of Sydney) in the late 1970s.

The alleged abuse occurred in a church building at Campbells Hill, New England Highway, Maitland. This two-storey building — with a long cloister at ground level and a long verandah directly above the cloister — was occupied in the 1970s by several Redemptorist priests. This building was listed in the 1970s as "Edmund Gleeson House" and local parishioners knew it as a kind of seminary.

Father Frank Donovan was listed in the 1978 edition of the Directory of Australian Clergy as being at this "Edmund Gleeson House". Then aged 62, Donovan was a senior member of his order, and at his previous posting (in Brisbane) he had been listed as "the Very Reverend Francis Donovan". While he was at Maitland about 1978, he was evidently acting as a mentor in training younger Catholic priests.

Adjoining "Edmund Gleeson House" were two other substantial buildings: the Sacred Heart parish church; and the Sacred Heart Infants School (the infants' school was noted for its grand façade). Father Frank Donovan was well known among the Sacred Heart parishioners and among the parents and children at the infants' school. He allowed children to visit the seminary premises, including after school hours, to play in the seminary grounds or in the seminary library.

A mother's story

One mother, "Beth", says that her daughters attended the infants' school in the late 1970s. At the end of each school day, Beth used to do some child-minding at her home, looking after several other children as well as her own. She says that Father Donovan invited several of these children to visit the seminary after school. Beth accepted this invitation, presuming that it was safe to leave children in the care of a Catholic priest.

These children included Beth's daughter, "Kylie" who was aged eight when she encountered Father Donovan. Twelve years later, in 1990, when she was an adult, Kylie disclosed to Beth that Father Donovan had sexually assaulted her at the seminary when she was about eight. Soon after hearing Kylie's account, Beth went to the Bishop's house in Cathedral Street, Maitland, intending to speak with Father Philip Wilson, who lived at the bishop's house. But Wilson was away, so Beth spoke instead to another priest. Beth was told that Fr Donovan was dead. (Broken Rites has since ascertained that his death occurred on 9 October 1984 in Young, NSW.)

But nothing eventuated from Beth's interview at the Bishop's house. The diocese made no further attempt to contact her and it did not bother to find out if Kylie needed help. Nor did it try to find out if there were other victims who might need help.

Beth now realises that she was too slack in not following up the matter in 1990. She says: "I just trusted the church to deal with it and kept my mouth shut. We all become part of the problem when we keep quiet. Because we didn't do anything, it [church sexual abuse] was perpetuated. Because we trusted the church to act, it kept on happening to other children. You perpetuate the secrets by keeping it all quiet, and then we're all shocked years later when we hear all the stories."

Later in the 1990s (some years after going to the Bishop's house), Beth happened to meet up with one of the other girls whom she had minded after school. This girl, "Serena", who was now an adult (about the same age as Kylie), said she had been meaning to tell Beth something that had been bothering the girl for years. Serena asked if Beth remembered the priest whom the girls used to visit at the seminary. Beth asked if Serena meant Father Donovan. Serena then told Beth that Father Donovan had touched her sexually, when she was about seven..

Serena said that she had already told her own mother some years ago about the abuse. That is, Kylie and Serena had each told their own mother about the abuse, without realising that the other girl had also made a similar disclosure. Kylie and Serena had not kept in contact with each other after growing up.

Report to "Towards Healing"

In October 2007, Kylie contacted Broken Rites, seeking advice about where to report Donovan's abuse to the church authorities. (There was no point in notifying the police, because Donovan was dead.) On 2 November 2007, Kylie lodged a written complaint to the church's Professional Standards Office ("Towards Healing") in Sydney. When Kylie told her mother about having lodged the complaint, Beth revealed to Kylie about how Serena had also been abused by Father Donovan. Kylie had no knowledge of Serena's abuse until November 2007.

Kylie contacted Serena and advised her to lodge a formal complaint to the PSO. Serena lodged her own written complaint, a month later, in December. 2007.

Kylie and Serena did not give each other the details of their complaint. Indeed, they refrained from discussing the matter. Kylie and Serena then had no further contact, preferring to leave the matter in the hands of the PSO.

Kylie and Serena gave similar accounts of the abuse. Each girl said that Father Donovan had put his hand inside her underpants and had penetrated her genitals — that is, digital rape.

The "Towards Healing" system dithered for six months after receiving Kylie's letter and four months after receiving Serena's letter. The PSO in Sydney passed the two complaints on to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, which in turn referred the matter to the head office of the Redemptorist order in Sydney. Neither the diocese nor the Redemptorists — nor the Professional Standards Office — seemed to be in a hurry to deal with the matter.

Finally, in May 2008, Newcastle Herald reporter Joanne McCarthy quizzed the office of the chairman of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Philip Wilson, of Adelaide, who had spent his early career as a priest in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese. The reporter indicated that she was preparing an article about the Donovan case. Therefore, Wilson understood the need for damage control. Within 24 hours, the PSO in Sydney phoned both women, saying that it "accepted the veracity" of their complaints.

Breach of trust

The Donovan case demonstrates how families used to trust the church and its clergy.

Kylie's mother Beth says: "As a mother, I was very much involved in activities at the infants' school. I came to know Father Donovan who used to enter the school grounds from the church side. He was popular with the kids and I remember the kids wrapping themselves around his legs and hanging onto his arms while he conversed with them. Father Donovan visited my home several times to have cup of tea with me, while the girls fussed over organising cakes and biscuits for us

"During those years, I also cared for several other girls from other families after school... During his home visits, Father Donovan would openly invite all the girls to come and visit him anytime. He was staying in the building between the church and the infant's school.

"I know that some of the girls visited Father Donovan on at least five occasions...

"As a young mother, I was really proud of my family and was certainly flattered that a priest would take interest in them. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the seemingly genuine caring of Father Donovan...

"So that makes two little kids that I was personally responsible for that were sexually interfered with by Father Donovan. I am so sorry."

Victim 1: Kylie

Kylie says: "I went to the seminary after school on occasions because the priest that lived there would let me look at books that they had in a library.

"One day, when I was about eight, the priest took me into the dining room of the seminary. He sat me on his knee, put his hand down my pants and inserted his finger into my genitals — that is, digital rape.

"This abuse has had profound effects on my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. In my child's mind, this priest was God's right hand man.. In my child's mind, God abused me. After this I still had to attend a Catholic School — and I was always suspicious. If you can't trust God, you can't trust anyone...

"As a result of this, I developed a disregard for people in positions of authority and for religion. Later, I refused to make my Confirmation which Catholic children were supposed to do while they were at school.

"I was unable to tell my mother about the abuse until about 1990, when I was aged twenty.

"I believe there may well be many more people who were subjected to his abuse as he had access to a lot of children."

Victim 2: Serena

Serena says:

"At the time of my abuse, I was inside one of the church buildings together with other children. Father Donovan approached me from behind and grabbed me with both hands. He then placed one hand on my chest and the other inside my underpants and digitally penetrated me. My initial reaction was to freeze. The other children were running around and were not aware of the abuse. Afterwards the children continued to play and I was left in shock, stunned and silent...

"I was particularly harmed by the fact that the offender was a priest because this made it impossible for me to talk about it at the time.

"I was too embarrassed to tell the other children [or Kylie's mother] what had happened on that day. I was also too embarrassed, ashamed and completely confused to tell my parents that night and again the silence continued for a long time to come.

"The abuse by Father Donovan disrupted my childhood. I lost all trust and security with adults, especially people of authority. The abuse has carried with me through my adulthood. I have trouble maintaining relationships...

"I maintained my silence until I reached the age of 18 years, before finally revealing the truth to my mother [and to Kylie's mother]. The reason behind revealing the abuse was because my life had been very disrupted. My mother was very concerned about my anti-social behaviour and was at a loss to why I had such anger and rebelliousness. So therefore revealing the truth to my mother I thought would give her a better understanding of me. Unfortunately it did not have the affect that I had hoped. My mother told me not to speak of it again and brushed it under the rug. It then seemed to exaggerate my problems and again raised the no trust issues. My relationship with my parents has been strained. The breach of trust performed by Father Donovan has affected all aspects of my life. I have children of my own and have been over protective and suspicious of most people."

Fr Frank Donovan's background

Francis Donovan was born on 21 November 1916 in Warwick, Queensland. He was ordained as a Redemptorist priest in 1943 in Ballarat, Victoria.

According to research by Broken Rites, Father Frank Donovan spent an early part of his career being a priest in Manila, in the Philippines. One can only imagine what offences he committed against vulnerable Filipinos.

Thus, Broken Rites has ascertained that Donovan was not listed in the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory during those early years. Broken Rites finally found him listed in the annual directories as being located in Brisbane in the early 1970s and in Maitland during the mid or late 1970s.

After leaving Maitland, he went to a Redemptorist monastery (St Clement's) at Galong, New South Wales. When he died at Young (NSW) on 9 October 1984, he was aged 67.

Redemptorists in Maitland

For many years, the Maitland-Newcastle diocese was a significant centre for Redemptorist priests. The Redemptorist order, which is also called the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, came from England to Australia in 1882 and their first Australian presence was in the Diocese of Maitland.

Bishop Edmund Gleeson, who was member of the Redemptorists, administered the Maitland diocese from 1931 to 1956. The building where Fr Frank Donovan lived in the late 1970s - then known as "Edmund Gleeson House" - was evidently named in honor of this bishop.

Over the years, the Redemptorists have had various addresses in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese. For example, there has been a Redemptorist monastery at Mayfield in Newcastle. The 1988 Catholic directory mentions a Monastery of the Most Holy Redeemer at Bolwarra, via Maitland. This edition of the directory also mentions a Redemptorist address at St Mark's Chapel, Morgan St, Newcastle.

Updated 10 May 2013