Yet another Catholic priest is convicted in New South Wales

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article posted 14 November 2019.

Father Dennis Byrnes had a long career as a Catholic priest in parishes on the New South Wales north coast. Between 2016 and 2019, Byrnes underwent a court process in which he was charged with having committed sexual crimes against a boy (these crimes began in 1999 when the boy was aged 12). For legal reasons, there was no media reporting of the case before the court proceedings finished. In 2019, Byrnes (aged 72) was sentenced to jail and the Byrnes case got its first mention on a town's local news website on 7 November 2019.

Born in Sydney, Dennis Byrnes studied for the priesthood in Sydney's Catholic seminaries (at Springwood and Manly). At the age of 24, he was ordained as a priest for the Lismore diocese. This diocese includes two dozen parishes, extending up the New South Wales north coast from Port Macquarie to Tweed Heads on the Queensland border. (The bishop is based in the town of Lismore.)

Fr Byrnes had a series of postings (all in the Lismore diocese) as an assistant priest in the towns of Casino, Grafton and Wauchope, and finally spent the major part of his career as the parish priest in charge at Kempsey. From 2010 onwards, he lived in retirement in Port Macquarie.

The Byrnes court process began in late September 2016 when New South Wales police arrested this retired priest and charged him with multiple offences regarding the teenage boy. At this preliminary stage, the charges were:

  • sexual intercourse without consent (x2 counts);
  • attempt sexual intercourse without consent (x2);
  • aggravated indecent assault (x2);
  • incite act of indecency with victim under 16;
  • commit act of indecency; and
  • indecent assault (x2).

The priest was granted conditional bail and the case had its first mention with a magistrate at Port Macquarie Local Court on 6 October 2016.

Court documents said that, after the victim reported the priest to the NSW Police, the detectives obtained a warrant to use two listening devices before the victim and Fr Byrnes had a conversation. Fr Byrnes apologised a number of times during that conversation, the court documents said.

As often happens in Australian court cases with a complex package of charges, Dennis Byrnes's name was not revealed at this early stage of the court process. He was listed (on the court schedule) only by his initials, "DB". As often happens, the media was not allowed to report the case at this stage.

The subsequent steps in the court process were spread over the next three years, with the media-suppression order remaining in place during that period.

The case finally reached a judge in the Port Macquarie District Court, where Dennis Byrne pleaded guilty to several child-sex charges including aggravated sexual intercourse and an aggravated act of indecency. Two further counts of aggravated acts of indecency on the child were taken into account as part of the sentencing.

The charged offences began in late 1999, when the boy was 12, and continued until 2004 when he was 17.

The offences occurred at Kempsey (NSW north coast) and at two other locations in New South Wales.

Judge Ellis sentenced Byrnes to six years jail. After serving three years and six months, Byrnes will be eligible to apply for release on parole.

The sentencing was conducted in the Port Macquarie District Court on 13 September 2019. Some time later, media outlets ascertained that it would be possible now to report the case. The first news of the sentencing was reported on 7 November 2019 on some local news websites on the NSW mid-North Coast.

Broken Rites first heard about the Dennis Byrnes case when he was charged in 2016 but, as usual, we observed the media non-publication order during the court proceedings. These temporary orders are often needed to help the court proceedings. To see the original Broken Rites article in 2016, click HERE.