Father Anthony Bongiorno talked about an 'old Spanish custom' — priests sexually abusing boys



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A Melbourne man, "Rex", was awarded compensation from the Victorian Government's Crimes Compensation Tribunal in 1997 for sexual crimes committed upon him from the age of eleven onwards in the 1980s by a Catholic priest, Father Anthony Bongiorno. The compensation is for the disruption that Bongiorno caused to the victim's adolescent development.

The tribunal, in 1997, accepted evidence that Father Bongiorno had indecently assaulted the boy repeatedly at St Ambrose's parish in Sydney Road, Brunswick beginning in 1981-82.

Bongiorno has also been investigated by the commissioner on sexual abuse for on the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese, Peter O'Callaghan QC. Mr O'Callaghan accepted that Bongiorno had committed child-sex abuse while at Brunswick.

Anthony Salvatore Bongiorno began training for the priesthood about 1960, aged 25, in the same trainee group as George Pell and Denis Hart, both of whom later became archbishops. In 1994, Pell (then an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne) officiated at a requiem mass for Bongiorno's brother Sam.

Rex's story

Acccording to legal depositions, Rex testified that in 1981 Father Tony Bongiorno invited him to stay overnight at the Brunswick presbytery, where he shared the priest's bed. Bongiorno touched the boy's genitals in the bedroom and again later while showering with the boy. This genital touching continued regularly for years.

In 1985, Rex told a social worker about Bongiorno's sexual abuse. When the Catholic diocesan office heard the complaint, it asked another priest, Father O (who was a close friend of Bongiorno from seminary days) to "investigate". Bongiorno denied the allegation and Father O reported this orally to the archdiocese, which dropped the matter.

The Children's Court made an order banning Rex from Bongiorno's presbytery but Bongiorno continued to have Rex living at the presbytery, on and off, often sleeping in the priest's bed.

Bongiorno provided Rex with food, presents (clothes and watches) and money (amounting to about $3,000).

Three complainants

In 1995, aged 25, Rex realised that his adolescent development had been damaged. He contacted police who soon found two more alleged victims of Bongiorno.

At the Melbourne Magistrates Court in February 1996, police charged Bongiorno (then aged 61) with multiple counts of indecent assault (genital touching) involving three boys, "Rex" (when aged 11 onwards), "Fred" (when aged 8) and "Adam" (when aged 12) between 1981 and 1987. There was also one charge of sexual penetration (oral sex) involving Fred. Bongiorno pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Magistrate Cotterell committed him for trial, commenting that the witnesses appeared to be credible and that there was indeed enough evidence for a jury to convict him. As people left the courtroom, the vicar-general of the Melbourne archdiocese (Monsignor Gerald Cudmore) was at the rear of the courtroom, handing out a statement inviting victims of church sexual-abuse to contact the archdiocese.

In August 1996, at the Melbourne County Court, the prosecution presented Bongiorno for trial regarding Rex and Fred. Rex and Fred are not connected but they gave similar evidence.

Two other priests lived at Bongiorno's presbytery. Father Gordon Gebbie, who lived at the presbytery in 1981-2, testified that he saw Rex in Bongiorno's bedroom and bathroom. [However, Gebbie neglected to report this matter to the child-protection authorities.]

From time to time, various laypersons also lived in the presbytery, paying rent. Three laypersons testified that they saw Rex, or at other times Fred, in Bongiorno's bed. Witnesses also said they knew that Bongiorno was showering with Rex and later with Fred. One witness, Anne, said she and others complained to the diocesan headquarters about this in 1993.

Fred's story

Fred, an altar boy, said that one Sunday in 1983, he soiled his pants. After Mass, Bongiorno took him to the presbytery and showered him. He said Bongiorno then touched the boy's genitals on the bed and performed oral sex on the boy. Fred said he was upset and struggling; he tried to phone his mother to get her to collect him but Bongiorno hung up the phone. Fred did not tell his mother about the assault because he was too ashamed. Fred said Bongiorno repeated the assault on later occasions in 1983-7 and tried to get Fred to perform oral sex on the priest. Fred said Bongiorno used to give him money.

The court was told that both Rex and Fred had immigrant parents and both were having trouble with the parents. This made the boys vulnerable to Bongiorno.

An old Spanish custom

Three witnesses (Andrew, Anne and Greg) said they had heard Bongiorno referring (approvingly), on several occasions, to "the old Spanish custom where the altar boy sleeps with the parish priest".

On one of these occasions, Bongiorno was sitting in a chair with Fred on his knee.

While Bongiorno was in the witness box, the prosecution asked him: "Well, is it really an old Spanish custom?"

Bongiorno replied "Yes".

In response to Judge Crossley, Bongiorno said: "The Catholic Church in Spain, Italy and the Philippines is quite different from in Australia. As students for the priesthood we were often amazed at these differences and we often used to refer to this or that old Spanish custom."

Separate trials

The prosecution wanted the cases of Rex and Fred heard by one jury, so that the jury would know that there was more than one complainant. However, Judge Crossley allowed Bongiorno to have a separate jury for each boy. Each jury was told about only one boy. Therefore, each jury thought that there was only one complainant and that his evidence was "uncorroborated". (In such cases, a jury will assume that "he canít be guilty or he would have done it to more than one victim".)

In addition, in such "ancient" cases, the judge is required to warn the jury to be cautious about returning a guilty verdict.

Therefore, the first jury (regarding Rex) acquitted Bongiorno and so did the second jury (regarding Fred). The second jury was shocked when it learned, after leaving the courtroom, that there had been a previous victim. To save expense, the Director of Public Prosecutions cancelled the third trial (regarding Adam).

Justice at last

However, Bongiorno's victims were able to seek justice through the Victorian Government's Crimes Compensation Tribunal. The Tribunal's decision, accepting that Bongiorno had committed child-sex crimes, was reported in the Melbourne Age, 8 November 1997. (About a year after this, this system of taxpayer-funded compensation was curtailed by Victoria's Liberal state government; but Victorian victims can still claim compensation from the church.)

The Bongiorno victims also were able to obtain justice through the Melbourne archdiocesan sex-abuse commissioner, Peter O'Callaghan QC.

After all this adverse publicity, the Melbourne archdiocese kept Bongiorno "on leave", instead of having him return to his parish.

Bongiorno died on 15 February 2002. A funeral service was held at the church of St Peter and St Paul, South Melbourne, attended by a number of priests. The congregation was told that Father Graham Redfern had a leading role in arranging the funeral service.

Bongiorno's name came up again in September 2002 when the church revealed that Bongiorno was among seven trainee priests who visited a camp for altar boys at Smiths Beach, Phillip Island, in January 1961 and January 1962. One of the former altar boys complained in 2002 that he was molested at this camp in 1960-61 by one of Borngiorno's fellow seminarians.

Footnote

By combing through the annual Australian Catholic Directories, Broken Rites has compiled a list of Bongiorno's parish appointments in Melbourne:

  • Maidstone (Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish, Footscray West), late 1960s;
  • Brunswick West (St Joseph's parish), early 1970s;
  • Fawkner (St Mark's parish), mid 1970s;
  • Thornbury (St Mary's parish), late 1970s to 1980;
  • Reservoir North parish, 1981;
  • Brunswick (St Ambrose's parish, 287 Sydney Road), May 1981 to 1995.

On August 30 and 31, 2007, the Melbourne Herald Sun published unflattering articles about Bongiorno's activities during his time in the Thornbury parish.