A senior priest covered up other priests' crimes — and he, too, abused children

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated on 20 September 2018

In 2009, a senior clergyman in the Australian Catholic diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, Father Thomas Brennan, was convicted of making a false written statement, saying that he could not remember a series of child sex-abuse complaints (in the 1970s) about other clergy. Brennan was the Vicar-General of the diocese (that is, the second-highest ranking clergyman in the diocese) from 2005 until he was charged in August 2008. Bishop Michael Malone told the media in August 2008: "As the Vicar-General, he's my right-hand man and is very close to me. He's the bishop when I'm away." And now in 2018 the Maitland-Newcastle diocese has admitted that, as well as covering up other clergymen's crimes, Father Brennan himself committed child-sex offences.

This article begins with the background about Brennan's cover-ups. A 2018 update is given at the end of the article.

The 2009 conviction for covering-up

In Newcastle Local Court on 9 March 2009 Magistrate Sharon Holdsworth convicted Brennan (then aged 71) on the false-statement charge and placed him on a 12-month good-behaviour bond.

According to evidence tendered in court, the charge related to a statement that Brennan made during a police investigation in 1998 into a complaint against a fellow priest who had been a teacher at St Pius X Catholic High School at Adamstown, Newcastle, in the 1970s. Father Tom Brennan was the school headmaster in the 1970s. In the 1970s, the teaching and administrative staff of this school included a number of priests.

In the 1998 statement, Brennan said he could not remember any students or their parents making complaints to him in the 1970s of sexual impropriety at St Pius X High School.

Evidence tendered in Newcastle Local Court contained statements from former students, parents and teachers who said they complained to Brennan about sexual impropriety at the school.

The Director of Public Prosecutions said in a court statement that four students complained to their parents in the late 1970s about sexual abuse from a priest. Each of the parents then complained to Brennan.

One of the complainants told police Brennan caned him and said: "Get out of here with your fantasy stories".

A teacher also told police he complained to Brennan about two priests.

The teacher said Brennan told him to mind his own business and concentrate on teaching.

Defence barrister John Fitzgerald told the court there was a reasonable possibility that Brennan could not remember the complaints almost 20 years after they were made.

How the cover-up case began

On 15 August 2008 Father Thomas Brennan was charged by detectives from Strike Force Georgiana in the New South Wales police service. This unit, located at the Lake Macquarie Detectives Office, near Newcastle, was investigating alleged child-sex offences by members of the clergy in the Newcastle region.

Speaking to the media on 15 August 2008, after Brennan had been charged, Bishop Michael Malone made his comment about Vicar-General Brennan being "the bishop when I am away".

Following the August 2008 charge, Father Brennan was stood down from the diocesan ministry, pending the outcome of the court proceedings.

Tom Brennan was the second Catholic priest in two days to be charged by this police unit in August 2008. The previous day, detectives charged Father John Sidney Denham with 30 child sex offences, relating to 18 boys during the 1970s and 1980s. Father Brennan was the headmaster at St Pius X College when Father Denham taught there. It was then a boys-only school.

Later, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Brennan was in charge of Corpus Christi parish at Waratah, Newcastle. In the late 1990s he became in charge of St Joseph's parish at Cessnock, west of Newcastle. In the Australian Catholic Directory for 2004, he was listed in charge of St Joseph's parish at Toronto (south of Newcastle). From 2005 onwards, he was listed also as the Vicar-General of the diocese.

After Brennan's conviction on 9 March 2009, Bishop Michael Malone said in a brief statement:

"Questions have been asked regarding Father Brennan's role of vicar-general and ministry as a priest.

"A formal risk management process oversighted by the NSW Ombudsman will be undertaken forthwith."

Update in 2018: Brennan was an abuser

In 2018, the Catholic Church was finally forced to admit that Father Thomas Brennan was a child-sex offender while he was the principal of St Pius X Catholic High School at Adamstown in Newcastle. In a letter of apology to a victim (James Miller) on 14 September 2018, Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright acknowledged that Brennan’s sexual abuse of teenage James Miller in 1978 was “deliberate and premeditated" and Brennan used the authority of his role as the school's principal to do it.

Brennan was principal of St Pius between 1973 and 1983.

Although Brennan was charged with sexually abusing two other former students when he died in 2012, Bishop Wright's letter is the first time a church representative has formally confirmed Brennan as a child sex offender.

Bishop Wright wrote his letter acknowledgement to James Miller after the diocese settled a significant compensation claim brought by Mr Miller.

In his apology letter Bishop Wright said Mr Miller revealed “confronting and terrible truths” about Brennan’s offending.

“As a Catholic priest I feel great shame that Tom Brennan, an ordained priest of the Diocese, chose to inflict his sexual desires upon you,” Bishop Wright wrote. "Brennan and all those who harmed children fundamentally betrayed their vocation. I am sorry.”