Church hid a priest's sex-crimes for 30 years — and it put him in charge of sex education for children

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article last updated in 2008

The Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane harboured a sex-abuse priest, Father Ronald McKeirnan, for 30 years after it first learned that he was committing criminal offences against children. And it put him in charge of sex education for all Brisbane Catholic schools.

In the mid-1960s, the church first learned that McKeirnan was committing criminal offences against children.

The church ignored the crimes and appointed McKeirnan in 1975 to Brisbane's Catholic Education Office, where he became the deputy director. Eventually, in the 1990s, one of his official roles was to develop sex education for all Brisbane Catholic schools.

In 1998 Ronald John McKeirnan (then aged 60) pleaded guilty in the Brisbane District Court to sexually abusing nine boys in his care. The offences occurred in 1964-65 (when McKeirnan was acting as an assistant priest in parishes or as a school chaplain at various Catholic schools or as a scoutmaster) and in 1975-7 (while he was in his new administrative role in Catholic education). After being convicted, McKeirnan spent a year in jail.

Ron McKeirnan is skilled at managing websites, and after his release from jail in 1999 he was appointed to work on church websites.

McKeirnan's background

Broken Rites has researched Ronald J. McKeirnan's official appointments in the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory. Ordained for the Brisbane diocese in 1963, McKeirnan was first listed in the Directory's 1964 edition as an assistant priest at Sacred Heart parish in Sandgate in Brisbane's north. This parish included several schools, including St Patrick's Christian Brothers College, Shorncliffe. There were complaints about McKeirnan interfering with schoolboys. The complaints went to Brisbane's Archbishop Patrick O'Donnell but were ignored.

In the late 1960s the Catholic Directory listed McKiernan's address as St Ita's parish, Dutton Park, Brisbane, where he was under the supervision of Father Bernard O'Shea. From this base, McKeirnan was moved around as a relieving priest at various parishes, including at Woolawin and Kenmore. After that, he was listed as an assistant priest at Childers in the 1971 edition and at Wilston in the 1972 and 1973 editions. These listings were merely his official address when the annual Directory went to press. The Directory did not provide information about various interim relieving stints or about his extra-curricular activities.

In 1973, a new archbishop (Archbishop Francis Roberts Rush) was installed in Brisbane. By then, further complaints had reached the hierarchy about McKeirnan's behaviour towards boys. To pacify parents, the hierarchy removed McKeirnan from parishes and gave him a trip to the United States. The annual Australian Catholic Directory in 1974 listed him as "studying overseas". McKeirnan is believed to have had contact with youth while he was in the U.S.

After his return to Australia, according to the 1975 edition of the Directory, his address was Brisbane's Catholic Education Office. This office administers Catholic schools through the vast Brisbane archdiocese. This continued to be McKeirnan's office address for the next two decades. Some of McKeirnan's court charges relate to 1975-77, while he was at the education office.

The 1983 edition of the Directory listed him as the assistant director of the education office. The 1988 edition listed him as the deputy director.

During 1975-95, the church continued to give McKeirnan access to young people. For example, he was a part-time "chaplain" at St Laurence's Christian Brothers College at South Brisbane. He also lived for some years at Xavier Christian Brothers training college in Indooroopilly, where he also did parish work as a "supply" (relieving) priest. In the Australian Catholic Directory in 1994, he was listed as "chaplain" at Xavier Hospital for crippled children, Coorparoo, Brisbane.

In 1996, McKeirnan was chairman of the Archdiocesan Planning and Staffing of Parishes Committee, which was responsible for taking the archdiocese into the 21st century. Around this time, he was also the coordinator of Faith Education Services in the 1990s — dealing with religious education and sex education for all Brisbane Catholic schools.

Protecting McKeirnan

According to church insiders, anybody who spoke to the archdiocesan authorities about Ron McKeirnan was told that the hierarchy would act only on written complaints. The complainants, however, were reluctant to write for fear of retribution in their job. This enabled the hierarchy to dismiss the allegations against McKeirnan as "unsubstantiated gossip".

Several times, when people complained to the church authorities about McKeirnan in accordance with the church's complaints procedure, the authorities tipped off McKeirnan about the complaint, including the name of the complainant. This enabled McKeirnan to threaten the complainants with a defamation action.

Clergy say that the church authorities were always reluctant to consider the complaints against McKeirnan. It is not clear why the church authorities were so tolerant. Was it because he possessed potentially embarrassing knowledge about senior churchmen?

Finally, in 1996, Brisbane's daily Courier Mail began exposing the church's protection of McKeirnan. The hierarchy realised that it had a public relations problem, and McKeirnan publicly stood down from his positions. A senior priest, who had responsibility for handling sexual abuse allegations about clergy (including McKeirnan), resigned from this responsibility.

Detectives from Queensland's sexual crimes squad, Taskforce Argos, interviewed McKeirnan in early 1997.

McKeirnan in court

In December 1997, Ronald John McKeirnan appeared in Brisbane Magistrate's Court, charged with 27 counts of indecent assault and indecent dealing, involving 13 boys, aged between 12 and 15, between 1964 and 1977. The charges involved McKeirnan either groping or masturbating the boys.

The court was told that McKeirnan gave alcohol and cigarettes to boys while on camping trips and then, after they had loosened up, he molested them. He also molested boys during choir practice, while swimming, while teaching them to drive a car, and even while waiting for a church service. He allegedly inserted a thermometer into the anus of a boy during a first-aid course.

At first, McKeirnan contested the charges but later some charges were dropped in a plea bargain. In the Brisbane District Court on 19 October 1998, McKeirnan pleaded guilty concerning nine boys and was jailed.

Prosecutor Carl Heaton said that McKeirnan's place of high respect in the community was why the incidents were kept secret for so long.

"The complainants felt as though there was little they could do — it would be their word against his," Mr Heaton said.

Sentencing McKeirnan, Chief Judge Pat Shanahan said that McKeirnan had been welcomed into the homes of the parents of the boys because of his profile as a religious person. He said that McKeirnan's crimes had had a "catastrophic effect" on his victims, with the impact carrying over into their adulthood.

McKeirnan was sentenced to three years' jail, with parole after one year.

Archbishop John Bathersby immediately issued a press statement, claiming that the Catholic Church [unlike the rest of the community] previously had "no clear understanding of sexual offences against children and minors".

[However, throughout McKiernan's career, church leaders must have been aware that sexual abuse of children was against the law, and that such crimes ought to have been reported to the police 30 years earlier. Instead, McKeirnan survived in church work until the police caught up with him in 1997.]

The Brisbane Courier Mail published articles about McKeirnan in the late 1990s including 27-8-1996, 28-9-96, 29-8-96, 21-11-96, 23-12-97, 20-3-98, 21-3-98, 20-10-98, 22-10-98, 24-10-98.

McKeirnan convicted again

In 2003 (according to the Courier Mail, 5 June 2003), McKeirnan appeared in the Brisbane District Court and was given a further three years wholly-suspended jail for sex offences he committed 26 years earlier. He pleaded guilty to three charges of indecent treatment of a boy between January 1976 and January 1977. That is, these incidents occurred after McKeirnan's trip to the United States and after his appointment to the Catholic Education Office.

The court was told that the complainant did not come forward until after McKeirnan was sentenced in 1998. The victim made allegations about being touched by McKeirnan during incidents at Caboolture, north of Brisbane, on a trip between Brisbane and Toowoomba, and in Toowoomba.

Judge Warren Howell said McKeirnan had already served his 12 months in jail and the three years’ sentence had expired, so the judge considered that a fully suspended sentence was appropriate.