A "celibate" priest was jailed for internet child-sex offences

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 7 September 2018

This Broken Rites article is an interesting case-study in the Catholic Church's notion of priestly "celibacy". A Sydney priest, Father Robert Fuller, was jailed on 24 February 2010 (then aged 54) after he admitted seeking a 13-year-old girl, through the internet, for sexual purposes.

Father Fuller used a webcam to show himself masturbating during online chat sessions with somebody who he thought was a 13-year-old girl, a court was told.

Father Fuller had approached the "girl" in an internet chat-room, unaware that "the girl" was actually an undercover detective.

The priest began a three-week-long cyber seduction, police alleged. Father Fuller allegedly had sexual conversations with "the girl" via the internet and sent her lewd pictures of himself, where (it was alleged) his face is clearly seen.

Father Robert Macgregor Fuller had been a priest in the Sydney archdiocese for 30 years. Since 2003, he had been the parish priest in charge of All Saints parish at Liverpool, in western Sydney.

In court, police alleged that Father Fuller sent chat-room messages in July and August 2009, and even tried to arrange a meeting to engage in sexual activity.

During the alleged grooming, Fuller did not mention that he is a Catholic priest, or that he is old enough to be the girl's grandfather.

Police alleged that eventually it was arranged that Father Fuller would meet the girl on 13 August 2009 at a car park at a swimming pool in Parramatta in western Sydney. At the car park, instead of meeting the young girl, he was arrested at 12.30pm by officers from the Child Exploitation Internet Unit.

Police also executed a search warrant at Father Fuller's presbytery (in George Street, Liverpool), where they seized laptop computers, documents, photographs and a mobile phone.

Police then charged Father Fuller with grooming a person under the age of 16. He was refused bail and was held in custody overnight.

First court appearance

Father Fuller appeared first in Parramatta Local Court next day, 14 August 2009, facing a magistrate.

In a police document tendered in court, it was alleged that, between July 21 and August 13, Father Fuller had communicated with a person on an online messenger service, Yahoo7 Messenger, who he thought was a 13-year-old girl.

In fact, the other person was an investigator from the Sex Crime Squad's Child Exploitation Internet Unit.

Father Fuller used two names during the conversations -- "r r" and "rogers_2468", the document stated.

There were a total of 25 conversations between the priest and the investigator, the court was told.

"During the communications the accused was sexually explicit with the [investigator] with a view to grooming and procuring 'her' for sexual activity," the document stated.

The accused masturbated in front a of a web camera and encouraged the presumed girl to masturbate, the document stated.

"The accused ... states he is concerned about getting into trouble because of her young age.

"During five of the conversations the [accused] activated his web camera and his face was captured by investigators."

Eventually a meeting was arranged with Father Fuller near Parramatta Park and he was arrested by police nearby.

Police prosecutor Sergeant Kai Peninkilampi told the court: "This is a clear abuse of a position of authority within the church, particularly as the defendant is in a position of having unvetted access to (children)."

Seaside holiday house

At the August 2009 hearing, Father Fuller was represented in court by lawyer Greg Walsh, who previously has represented various other Catholic priests on sex-offence charges. Applying for bail, Mr Walsh said Father Fuller could live in a holiday apartment owned by the Catholic Church in Terrigal [a seaside resort, north of Sydney], while he went through the court proceedings. Another priest would live with him and no internet connection would be allowed at the flat, the lawyer said.

In support of the bail application, the defence called evidence from Father Terence Bell, who was a colleague and long-time acquaintance of Father Fuller. The court was told that Father Terry Bell was currently carrying out some of the administrative duties of the regional bishop in this part of Sydney. [Under the archbishop, the Sydney diocese has four auxiliary bishops, responsible for administering different regions.]

The court was told that Fr Terry Bell would arrange for a $25,000 surety to be paid to secure Father Fuller's release on bail, pending his future court appearances.

Referring to the seaside apartment where Fr Fuller would live, Father Bell said it is a three-bedroom unit that is owned by the Sydney diocese, and it is available for priests to use for holiday purposes.

Opposing bail, Sergeant Penninkilampi said the charges of using a carriage service to procure persons under 16 and groom persons under 16 were extremely serious, carrying jail terms of up to 15 and 12 years respectively. He said that Father Fuller being on bail could pose a risk to the community. He also said it did not matter if Father Fuller lived away from children.

"The defendant has shown an absolute preparedness to travel wherever and whenever to contact [the presumed girl] and I would submit it doesn't matter where he lives," the prosecutor said.

In granting bail at the August 2009 hearing, Magistrate Peter Miszalski required Father Fuller to surrender his passport, not approach points of international departure, not to use the internet or approach children or places where children congregated and to be supervised at all times. And $25,000 in cash would have to be lodged as part of the bail conditions.

The case was scheduled for further court proceedings on a future date. Meanwhile, Father Fuller would be living in the holiday apartment by the beach.

Jailed

On 24 February 2010, Fuller appeared in the Parramatta District Court for sentencing. (This is a higher court, presided over by a judge instead of a magistrate.)

Judge Allan Hughes sentenced Fuller to a maximum of 18 months in jail for grooming and procuring a child under the age of 16. However Fuller was given a six-month parole period and six months off his sentence for an early guilty plea.

Judge Hughes told the Court that Fuller knew what he was doing was wrong and expressed this in his conversation with the assumed 13-year-old girl.

"Adults might not like us to meet because I'm too old for you ... I have not dated someone so young ... girls I have dated have been over 16," Fuller was quoted as saying in a conversation.

Judge Hughes also told the court that Fuller's "vow of celibacy" might have had a role in his sexual urges.

[Comment by Broken Rites: According to dictionaries, being "celibate" merely means not being married. For example, many people who obtain sex through a night-club or a dating agency are "celibate" -- that is, not married.]

"It [celibacy] is suppressing a human instinct," the judge said.

"I don't know why they don't change the rules. It is archaic, it is cruel, it is cruel."

Fuller told the court the chat rooms were part of a fantasy world and he did not truly believe the person watching was a pubescent girl.

"There's not necessarily any truth in what they say; it's a fantasy in the sense," Fuller told the court.

"It's a game, it's a fantasy.

"Unless you see them or meet them you don't know. It's the image they presented and I went on with it."

How the story first broke

Until Friday morning, 14 August 2009, the Sydney public did not know that this case was coming up.

Shortly before 6.00am on Friday morning 14 August 2009, Sydney newsrooms learned that detectives had arrested "a 54-year-old man" who would face Parramatta Local Court that morning regarding "alleged internet child-grooming offences." At this stage, the public was not told the man's name or any other details about him.

By 8.00am, radio bulletins were reporting that the man is a Catholic priest (still not named).

By 11.00 am that day, radio bulletins and media websites were reporting that Father Robert Fuller, of Sydney's Liverpool Catholic parish, had appeared in court. By mid-day, the media websites were publishing extensive details of the court proceedings.

It was in this way that the parishioners of Liverpool began hearing about the charging of their parish priest. Later in the afternoon, as some parents arrived at Liverpool's Catholic schools to collect their children for the weekend break, the news spread by word of mouth at the school gates.

A newspaper quoted one parent as saying: "I went to Mass this morning and the priest was saying, 'Please pray for Father Robert,' and I wondered what's wrong with him."

Meanwhile, pupils at least one school learned about the arrest before their parents did. On Wednesday 19 August, the Liverpool Champion weekly newspaper reported: "Pupils at All Saints Primary School were told at an assembly on Friday morning that Father Fuller had been arrested. Teachers told the children they should not to speak to the media. Staff from the school and the church would not comment on the arrest."

Many parents did not hear about the case until perhaps on Friday evening's television news bulletins.

The Catholic education authorities did not give parents any written information or advice about the court case. Parents were not given any counselling about how to explain the issue to their children. Thus, it was left to the secular news media to perform this task, instead of the church doing it.

The fact that the story broke late on Friday meant that parents and children had a whole weekend to discuss it.

The parish schools

Four Catholic schools were affiliated with Father Rob Fuller's Liverpool parish:

  • All Saints Catholic Primary School (kindergarten to year 6);
  • All Saints Catholic Boys College (years 7 to 10);
  • All Saints Girls College (years 7 to 10);
  • All Saints Catholic Senior College, Casula (years 11, 12, co-ed).

These schools had issued newsletters and reports giving an administrative and staffing list that includes Fr Robert Fuller's name as the parish priest.

The annual report of the All Saints Catholic Parish Primary School for 2006 stated that "our Parish Priest, Fr Robert Fuller", a parent and the principal represent the school on the Liverpool Catholic Schools Council.

Background

It is not known (except by the police) how Fr Fuller first came to the attention of the police, or how long the police had been interested in him.

It is not known (except by Father Fuller) what else Father Fuller had been doing during his long career in the priesthood.

Robert M. Fuller trained for the priesthood in the 1970s at St Columba's College seminary at Springwood, west of Sydney, and then at St Patrick's College seminary, Manly, Sydney. He was ordained as a priest for the Sydney archdiocese on 1 September 1979 (aged 24) and began working as an assistant priest in parishes.

In September 1980 he was appointed as an assistant priest at "Christ the King" Catholic parish in North Rocks (north of Parramatta, in western Sydney). One of his roles was to work with young girls and boys in the church's Antioch youth group. Antioch is for "young people of high-school age (equivalent to Years 10, 11 and 12) and a little older".

In the mid-1980s, Fuller was an assistant priest at St Mary's parish in Concord (in Sydney's inner-west).

In the index of the 1988 Australian Catholic directory, his address was listed as "Our Lady of Mount Carmel" parish at Mount Pritchard in western Sydney.

In the 1991 directory, he was listed at St Catherine Laboure parish in Gymea, in Sydney's south.

In the 1994 directory, he was listed as the parish priest in charge of St Jerome's parish at Punchbowl, in Sydney's south-west.

He was appointed parish priest for Liverpool in 2003.

Fr Robert Fuller and Fr Terry Bell were both are listed as New South Wales contacts for the Schoenstatt Movement, a Catholic lay organisation, described as a movement of renewal within the Catholic Church. Father Terry Bell was appointed in 2008 as the parish priest in charge of "Our Lady of the Rosary" parish at Fairfield, in western Sydney.

World Youth Day, 2008

In July 2008, Sydney was the international centre for Catholic Church World Youth Day festivities, which lasted for several days. Father Rob Fuller's Liverpool parish accommodated 1,000 young people who stayed in the Liverpool parish schools and in home-stay accommodation with the parish's families.

The Liverpool Champion local newspaper (23 July 2008) published an article about Father Fuller's participation in the World youth Day weekend. The article began: "Exciting, chaotic and fun. That's how Father Robert Fuller of All Saints Catholic Church described his experiences with World Youth Day."