These victims obtained justice, supported by Broken Rites

  • By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated on 3 December 2017)

Research by Broken Rites has revealed that a former trainee Catholic priest (Gregory Vincent Coffey) was sentenced in South Australia for a child-sex crime and then, despite this, he was given a senior teaching position in a Melbourne Catholic school, enabling him to commit sex crimes against more children. In court proceedings in Melbourne in 1994 and 1997, Coffey pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting boys who were in his custody at a Marist Brothers secondary school in Melbourne in the 1970s. The Melbourne court did not know about Coffey's earlier conviction in South Australia. Broken Rites was present in the Melbourne court, supporting the victims and taking notes. Broken Rites also conducted its own research into Gregory Coffey's past. During this research, Broken Rites discovered Coffey's earlier South Australian conviction.

The background

The Broken Rites research revealed that Coffey's original surname was not Coffey but Coffin. Gregory Vincent Coffin (born 31 December 1948) grew up in the Melbourne suburb Ashburton, where he was a pupil at St Michael's primary school. He then became a secondary student at Salesian College, Chadstone, Melbourne. At the end of Year 10, when he was aged 15, the Salesians recruited him as a future priest, and he began living with the Salesians, doing his secondary Year 11 and Year 12 studies in a segregated group of "aspirants" for the Salesian priesthood.

Thus, he began absorbing the Salesian sub-culture.

After Year 12, he spent a year in a Salesian novitiate (a religious training institution).

Fellow students have told Broken Rites that during all these years — at school and in the Salesian training-course — they knew him as Gregory Coffin.

In 1967 and 1968, Greg Coffin did Catholic primary teacher training with the Salesians, after which he was posted to teach and live as "Brother" Coffin" at Salesian College, "Rupertswood", Sunbury (in Melbourne's north-west) in 1969 and 1970. A school year book from "Rupertswood" College at the end of 1969 had a photograph labelled as "Bro. G. Coffin".

At the end of 1970, the Salesians removed Brother Coffin from "Rupertswood" College. But there was no mention of him in the "Vale" (Farewell) column in the yearbook at the end of 1970 — and a former "Rupertswood" teacher has told Broken Rites that this omission was unusual.

Convicted in South Australia

After his year at "Rupertswood", Coffin changed his name to Coffey.

In 1971, Brother Coffey was transferred to a Salesian school (St Mark's College) in Port Pirie, South Australia. During his year there, he sexually abused numerous boys (see more about this later in this article) — and, unfortunately for Coffey (and the Salesians), one of these victims eventually reported Coffey to the South Australian police.

In those years, Catholic Church abuse-victims hardly ever reported such church crimes to the police. Because of this immunity, the abusive clergy (and their superiors) were led to believe that the risk of public exposure was minimal, and this encouraged the offenders to target additional victims.

After his trouble in Port Pirie, the Salesians transferred Coffey away from South Australia and, according to statements made in court, they were intending to send him in early 1972 to teach at a Salesian school in Tasmania (St Dominic's at Glenrochy Hobart). However,the South Australian police issued Coffey with a summons to appear in court in early 1972 to be charged with indecent assault of a child. This meant that it would be difficult for the Salesians to keep Coffey. So, instead of taking the Tasmanian appointment, Coffey left the Salesian order without being ordained as a priest.

He returned to Melbourne but visited South Australia again in February 1972 to face a court. According to the Broken Rites research, the South Australian magistrate gave him a two-year jail sentence, which was suspended with a good behaviour bond.

Crimes in Melbourne

In Melbourne, despite his record of child-sex crimes, Coffey was immediately accepted by the Marist Brothers in 1972 to work as a lay teacher at their Immaculate Heart College in Clifton Grove, Preston, in Melbourne's north. Coffey's tranfer to the Marist school suited the Salesians because it solved their Coffey problem.

Did the Marist Brothers administration ask the Salesians about Coffey's suitability? And did the Salesians tell the truth about Coffey's record? And, if so, did the Marist Brothers care? Anyway, neither the Salesians nor the Marist Brothers realised that Coffey's past record would eventually become public.

At Immaculate Heart College, Coffey was now called "Mister" Coffey (instead of "Brother"). This school, which was then for boys only, went to Year 10. The school was within the Marist Brothers system (and was usually known as "Marist Brothers Preston"), but was staffed mostly by lay teachers.

In his new Melbourne school, Mr Coffey proceeded to re-offend, even before his South Australian good-behaviour bond had expired.

According to court submissions in 1994, the assaults took the form of Coffey handling the boys' genitals and making the boys masturbate him — at the school, on school camps and in Coffey's flat.

Coffey taught "religious" education and was the school's vice-principal. This status gave him considerable authority over his victims, discouraging them from reporting the abuse to their parents or the police.

In 1980 Coffey became the school's principal and remained there until 1985. In 1986, after Coffey left, the school was amalgamated and expanded to take in Years 11 and 12 and was re-named Redden College (and was later re-named again as Samaritan Catholic College, Preston). This campus was eventually taken over as part of Parade College, a large Catholic school owned by the Christian Brothers, with headquarters at Bundoora, in Melbourne's north-east.

From 1986, Gregory Coffey taught for three years at Loyola College, a Catholic school at Watsonia (in Melbourne's north-east).

Another position of trust

Court evidence was given that Coffey left the Catholic schools system in 1990 and then worked part-time for the St John of God Brothers (a Catholic religious order) at their "Churinga" centre in Melbourne's north-east, looking after intellectually disabled young males — an alarming placement in view of his record.

He also did a course in "psychology" at the Hofbauer Catholic "psycho-therapeutic training" centre in Melbourne.

Charged in Melbourne

In late 1992, Victoria Police conducted a public awareness campaign ("Operation Paradox") about sexual crimes against children. The police urged the public to report incidents of child-abuse to a special phone-in. Therefore, as a service to the community, one of Coffey's victims at Immaculate Heart College ("Shane") contacted the phone-in. Specialist police interviewed Shane, who signed a written sworn statement about Coffey dated 28 January 1993. Broken Rites has inspected a copy of this document.

In his police statement, Shane described various incidents in which (he alleged) Coffey indecently assaulted him in 1975-76 when he was aged 14 to 15. Shane's statement said that he remained silent about the abuse because he felt intimidated by Coffey as an authority figure.

Shane's statement said: "I didn't tell anyone about this [the assaults] because I didn't know how to broach the subject; sex was a very taboo subject in a very Catholic home and school and I didn't think that I'd be believed. And I didn't want to get into trouble in case I'd done something wrong."

However, Shane said he decided at the age of 31 to end the silence.

Shane's statement said: "These incidents have been on my mind for all this time and the hurt that goes with it. I decided that I wasn't going to feel any worse by reporting it, in fact I might feel a whole lot better."

During 1993, Victoria Police detectives began investigating Shane's complaint about Coffey. In late 1993, Broken Rites launched its Australia-wide telephone hotline, and "Shane" was among the first Australian church-victims to phone Broken Rites. Broken Rites supported Shane in his determination to help the police. Shane was able to direct the police to other possible victims at Immaculate Heart College.

On 12 January 1994, Coffey was charged at the Preston Magistrates Court, Melbourne, with indecent assault of Shane and three other boys. Coffey pleaded guilty to all charges. A Broken Rites representative was present in court, supporting the victims.

The magistrate (Mr Breer), not aware of Coffey's South Australian conviction, presumed that Coffey was a first-time offender. The magistrate therefore imposed a lenient sentence — a two-year good-behaviour bond.

First media coverage

Coffey's January 1994 court case was reported in the local suburban newspaper, the Preston weekly Post-Times, where an article appeared on 25 January 1994. This article enabled any other victim from Immaculate Heart College to become aware that it was possible to obtain justice by consulting the Victoria Police sexual offences and child abuse unit.

More victims

After reading the newspaper article, two more victims from the same school contacted the police, pointing out that the four victims in the January court case were not Coffey's only victims. One of the new victims told police that his assault occurred during Coffey's first year at the school.

On 24 October 1994 Coffey appeared in Preston Magistrates Court again, charged regarding these additional victims. Broken Rites was again present in court, supporting the victims.

Coffey again pleaded guilty. This brought the number of victims in the 1994 Preston charges to a total of six boys. The magistrate (Geoffrey Horgan), still unaware of Coffey's South Australian conviction, again placed him on a good-behaviour bond.

At the 24 October 1994 hearing, Coffey's lawyer said that, at the time of the January 1994 hearing, Coffey had been still working at the "Churinga" centre for intellectually disabled young males. But after hearing about the January court case, the "Churinga" administration necessarily asked him to resign.

Second media coverage

Coffey's October 1994 court case was reported in the Preston Post-Times on 1 November 1994 and also in another suburban newspaper, the weekly Diamond Valley News on 2 November 1994.

Victims #7 and #8

These newspaper articles prompted two more victims from Immaculate Heart College ("Jim" and his brother "Paul") to contact Broken Rites and the police. These new charges about Jim and Paul eventually reached the Melbourne County Court in October 1997, when Coffey was charged with four incidents of indecent assault against Jim and two against Paul.

Coffey, unemployed and aged 48 at the time of this 1997 court hearing, pleaded guilty.

The court was told that the father of Jim and Paul died when the boys were aged 15 and 14 respectively. While the boys were grieving, Coffey seized the opportunity. For example, the boys' mother did not have a car and Paul had to rely on Coffey to give him a lift to after-school basketball training sessions. On one occasion (the prosecution alleged) Coffey took Paul to Coffey's flat, instead of to basketball, and then molested him at the flat.

The court was told that Coffey used his authority to intimidate the boys (first Jim and later Paul) into submission. The court was shown a school report on Paul, signed by Coffey (Exhibit 3), which threatened that Paul "must work harder or a lower mark would limit his future".

Evidence was given that, when Jim was assaulted in 1976 (aged 15), it never occurred to him that his younger brother would later become a victim. Jim remained silent about his own assaults for 18 years until he saw in the "Diamond Valley News" in 1994 that Coffey pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting six other boys at the same school. Jim showed the article to Paul, who then disclosed that he, too, was a Coffey victim — in 1977 at the age of 14.

Jim then told his wife about Coffey for the first time. And Paul also told his wife — for the first time.

Jim and Paul contacted the Victoria Police sexual offences unit in 1995 and made written, signed statements.

The court was told that, when interviewed by the police in 1995 about the new victims, Coffey was evasive and showed no remorse.

The court was told that Coffey was annoyed by the media reporting of his 1994 court appearances which led to more of his victims coming forward.

This time, detectives did a more thorough investigation of Coffey and confirmed that he had been convicted in South Australian 1971.

Worked as a "counsellor"

The court was told in 1997 that, when police interviewed Coffey in 1995 about the Jim/Paul complaints, they found that, after the 1994 hearings, he had gone to Sydney, where he was employed in a position of trust — as a "family counsellor" for the Catholic Church in the Blue Mountains.

Jim and Paul submitted written impact statements to the court, describing how the offences adversely affected their lives. Coffey's breach of trust devastated Jim and Paul, disrupting their education and shattering their religious beliefs and their trust in people.

Jim said he is angry that the Catholic culture of the 1970s prohibited him from reporting church sexual abuse. Jim said he feels guilty that he was not able to protect his younger brother.

Four days behind bars

Judge Nixon adjourned the sentencing for four days and ordered that Coffey spend those four days in custody in the court cells.

As he was being led to the cells, Coffey spoke in a threatening manner to a man in the public gallery whom he mistook for a newspaper reporter.

Judge John Nixon finally sentenced Coffey to two and a half years' jail, suspended, with a good-behaviour bond. This meant that the sentence would go on Coffey's record, even though the jail time was suspended.

Third media coverage

Coffey's 1997 conviction was reported in the mass-circulation metropolitan daily newspapers (the "Age", the "Herald Sun" and the "Australian") on 15 October 1997. This meant that the Coffey story became common knowledge throughout the state of Victoria. Coffey's thirty-year cover-up was over.

The "Age" report was accompanied by a photograph of Coffey, taken outside the court. This court case was also reported locally in the Preston "Post-Times" on 15 October 1997 and the "Diamond Valley News" on 21 October 1997.

Complaint at a youth camp

Broken Rites research revealed that during summer holidays in 1967 and 1968, Brother Coffin visited the Catholic Church's Don Bosco youth camp at Safety Beach, near Dromana, south-east of Melbourne. Here the Salesians conducted summer camps that were attended by boys from throughout Victoria. Brother Coffin was then a novice Brother, still in his late teens.

In 2004, Broken Rites was contacted by a man ("Jasper") who said he was sexually abused by Brother Greg Coffin at this Dromana camp in 1968, when he was aged about ten.

Jasper told Broken Rites: "This was not a school camp. My family, who lived in the country, sent me to the camp in the summer holidays. I got hit by a cricket ball there and Greg Coffin took this opportunity to molest me.

"Later, in 1969 and 1970, my parents sent me to board at Rupertswood College. Coffin recognised me (he was a sports master, not my classroom teacher). He sought me out and then molested me numerous times, including in the infirmary when I was unwell.

"Now [in 2004] my parents are very elderly. They don't know that Coffey abused me and I would not want them to find out now, because of their advanced age. The information would hurt them."

Same camp, 8 years later

Evidently 1968 was not the last time that Gregory Coffin/Coffey was involved in the above-mentioned Don Bosco camp. In 2011 a man ("Dominic", born 1962) told Broken Rites that in 1976, when Coffey was the principal at Immaculate Heart College in Melbourne, this school took a group of students to the Don Bosco camp for a week's stay, during the school term, as part of the school's activities.

Dominic told Broken Rites: "The week at the camp was when I was in Year 9, aged 14. Mr Coffey came to the camp and he molested me while we were there. But I could not tell my parents because my dad had a very high opinion of Mr Coffey as a 'fine up-standing man'. My dad also had the same high opinion of Father Michael Glennon, a suburban priest, who used to visit our school — Glennon was eventually exposed as one of Australia's worst child-sex abusers and got a lengthy jail sentence."

More charges in South Australia

In 2004 another South Australian man ("Max") noticed Coffey's Melbourne court convictions on the Broken Rites website. Max, born in 1957, had encountered Coffey at the Salesian College in Port Pirie, South Australia, in 1971, when Max was aged 13. From reading the Broken Rites website, Max discovered that Coffey had continued to offend in Victoria during the mid-1970s after leaving South Australia. After reading this website, Max contacted the South Australian police, and arranged to speak with detectives.

Max told Broken Rites in 2008: "I knew the family of the boy who reported Coffey to the South Australian police in 1971. I knew of other South Australian victims, apart from myself. When I saw the Broken Rites website I realized that it would have been better for all concerned if all the South Australian victims had spoken to the police in 1971 — this might have discouraged Coffey from continuing to commit similar offences after he moved to Melbourne.

"After I talked to the South Australian detectives in 2004, they began a thorough investigation. They found a large number of additional Coffey victims who were all from Salesian College, Port Pirie. Eleven of these victims were prepared to make a signed, sworn police statement but some others declined — either because they were 'loyal' Catholics who wanted to protect the clergy or because they did not understand the court system.

"During 2007, the South Australian police charged Coffey regarding the eleven available victims. The case was listed for court in Adelaide in December 2007 but Coffey failed to appear and he failed to contact the court. The magistrate ordered that Coffey be summoned to appear on 18 January 2008. But before this hearing date arrived, the police notified me that the hearing was being cancelled because Coffey had died in Tasmania in October 2007."

Coffey’s death confirmed

In September 2011, a Melbourne Herald Sun reporter was preparing an article about child-sex abuse in the Salesian religious order, including a mention of the various Salesians who are named on the Broken Rites website. When the reporter asked the Salesians about Coffey, the Salesians’ Australian head office in Melbourne confirmed that Gregory Coffey is dead. Thus, the Herald Sun published phototgraphs of seven Salesians, including one photo labelled: "Gregory Coffey, deceased".

Coffey's death in 2007 occurred 40 years after he entered the Salesian religious order in 1967. Things would have worked out better for everybody, including Coffey, if the Salesians had encouraged Coffey's other South Australian victims to contact the police in 1971. If the Salesians had done this in 1971, it would have served as a warning to Coffey and other Catholic Church offenders that they could no longer rely on the church's traditional code of silence. Instead, Gregory Vincent Coffey continued his life of crime in Melbourne during the later 1970s, thereby inflicting damage on additional children — and damaging his own life as well.

What, exactly, was Coffey's full name?

Broken Rites has checked Gregory Coffin/Coffey in government archives, and we found that his forenames were listed on some occasions as "Gregory Victor" but later as "Gregory Vincent".

In 1968, in a list of school teachers in the Victorian Government Gazette, he was listed as "Gregory Victor Coffin", with his address given as the Salesians' Auxilium College in Ferntree Gully (in Melbourne's outer-east).

And in the Australian electoral rolls for 1972 and also 1977, he was again listed as "Gregory Victor Coffey" (at suburban addresses in Melbourne, where he was working as a teacher).

But when he was charged in court in Melbourne in 1994, he was listed as "Gregory Vincent Coffey". Why did he change his middle name? Did he change it for "religious" reasons after joining the Salesians (there have been ancient saints named "Vincent" or "Victor")? Or did he change it after his South Australian conviction?