A priest suddently died after police charged him — and now one of his victims has died by suicide

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 1 October 2020

Broken Rites is doing further research about how the Catholic Church harboured Father Daniel Dominic Hourigan, who committed sexual offences against children in the Sale diocese in eastern Victoria. Hourigan was recruited into the priesthood in his forties. He died three days after police charged him with sexual offences against a boy. Now, many years later, some of his victims are still feeling hurt by the church's cover-up. In 2019, one of Hourigan's victims died by suicide — a slow death lasting forty years. This victim's death is mentioned at the end of this article.

On 15 September 1995, detectives charged Hourigan with one incident of sexual penetration of a boy ("Karl"), and were preparing to lay further charges relating to three other boys. Hourigan, aged 65, died on September 18.

The death was sudden and unexpected. According to a death notice in the Melbourne Age on 21 September 1995, Hourigan died "peacefully". No autopsy was held to determine, for example, whether his body held an unusual amount of medications. Hourigan's relatives attributed the death to a "heart attack".

Criminal charges

Police had summonsed Daniel Hourigan to appear at Korumburra Magistrates Court in south-eastern Victoria on 9 November 1995 on the charge involving Karl. Police said this was a holding charge and that they were preparing more than 20 additional charges, including indecent assault and gross indecency, regarding the three other boys. The additional offences allegedly occurred in two parishes between 1978 and 1983.

Further offences are alleged to have occurred during a trip to Queensland in the early 1980s, but these did not come under the jurisdiction of the Victorian criminal code.

The police investigation began after "Karl" contacted Victoria Police in early August 1995, making a sworn statement.

Karl encountered Hourigan in the Leongatha parish in the early 1980s, aged 11. Karl says: "He was always at our house and was very friendly with my parents."

Karl says there were three incidents when he was aged 13 to 15. One of the offences occurred in the driveway of Karl's family home. Like most other church-abuse victims, Karl could not tell his parents, because he did not want to upset them with negative information about their priest. He finally told his parents in 1988, after Hourigan had transferred to a distant parish.

After Karl's police statement in August 1995, detectives widened their inquiries and interviewed three other young men (from the Warragul parish) about offences committed by Hourigan in 1978-1983.

One of the Warragul victims ("Sebastian") says he told Bishop Eric D'Arcy in 1986 about having been sexually abused by Hourigan, but Hourigan was allowed to continue in the ministry. Bishop D'Arcy left the Sale diocese in 1988.

"Karl" says he lodged a complaint with the Sale diocese in 1993, making it clear that he wanted Hourigan out of the ministry. After 1993, the diocese did not give Hourigan any more full-time postings, but he continued to live in a Catholic parish presbytery within the Sale diocese. And the 1994 edition of the Australian Catholic Directory listed him as a "supplementary priest" priest of the diocese, meaning that he was still available for casual or relieving ministry.

"Karl" became annoyed when he discovered that Hourigan was conducting a funeral service for someone — that is, he was still acting as a priest. Karl eventually contacted the police, when he was aged in his twenties.

After Hourigan's death, senior figures in the Sale diocese confirmed to members of the clergy and laity they had had known for some time about Hourigan's sexual abuse.

Children pray for an alleged child-abuser

A day before the funeral, children at St Lawrence O'Toole parish primary school in Leongatha were asked to say a prayer for Father Hourigan as he had formerly worked in this parish. At this stage, Hourigan's former parishioners throughout eastern Victoria did not know that Hourigan had been charged with child-sex abuse but this situation changed on the morning of the funeral (22 September 1995) when radio news bulletins mentioned the sex-charges for the first time. Some of Hourigan's colleagues heard the radio news items as they were preparing, or travelling, to attend the funeral.

During the funeral service at St Michael's church in Traralgon, a senior cleric of the diocese made an oblique mention of Hourigan's "troubled life" — presumably a reference to the child-sex charges.

On 26 September 1995, local newspapers (the Leongatha Star, the South Gippsland Sentinel Times and the Latrobe Valley Express) published the news about Hourigan's child-sex charges.

The priest's background

Dan Hourigan was born in 1930 and attended school in Traralgon, eastern Victoria. He was known to his relatives as "Tim" Hourigan.

During the 1950s, aged in his twenties, he spent several years as a lay missionary and teacher in New Guinea. During the 1960s he taught English at St Bernard's Christian Brothers College in Essendon, Melbourne. In 1969-72 he is believed to have again worked overseas, possibly as a lay missionary.

In the early 1970s he was recruited as a candidate for the priesthood on behalf of the diocese of Sale. He trained for the priesthood at St Paul's Seminary in Sydney. This was a short course for mature-age entrants — four years (instead of the seven years at Melbourne's Corpus Christi seminary). He was ordained in 1976, aged 46. His parishes in the Sale diocese included: Maffra and Warragul in the late 1970s; Leongatha, Sale, Omeo and Neerim South in the 1980s; and Orbost in 1988-1993.

Former altar boys of Daniel Hourigan still talk about their encounters with this priest. They say that one former altar boy, who did altar-serving for Hourigan in a small rural church near the city of Sale in the mid-1980s, shot himself dead in 1994. 

A victim dies by suicide in 2019

On 21 February 2019, one of Hourigan's victims died by suicide. A week later, this victim's sister told Broken Rites:

"My young brother was abused by Fr Hourigan on August 18, 1979. My brother was very damaged by this abuse, and he suffered a slow death that lasted forty years.

"My brother took his own life by hanging on Thursday 21February 2019. He just couldn't do it any more.

"I am his eldest living sister. He was our baby brother."