How a decision by Melbourne church leaders was revealed, after 10 years

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated in 2010

This Broken Rites article demonstrates how the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese allowed a Melbourne priest (Father Barry Robinson) to continue ministering after he admitted having sex with a 16-year-old boy. The Melbourne Church leaders tried to keep the matter a secret.

According to documents filed in a United States court, Father Robinson has admitted having sex with the boy on three occasions on church premises during a visit to the Boston diocese in the United States. Father Robinson left the United States in April 1994 before U.S. civil authorities could queston him about the matter.

Church leaders managed to keep the Boston matter a secret for the next ten years. The silence was broken in January 2004, when a U.S. legal firm instigated civil action against the Boston diocese on behalf of victims of Boston clergy. The legal firm had obtained discovery of church documents, which the firm filed in court, relating to the Boston diocese's handling of clergy sexual abuse. Among the church documents (filed in court) was some material relating to Fr Barry Robinson. The church documents regarding Robinson were reported in an article in the Boston Globe newspaper on 14 January 2004.

The priest's background

Broken Rites has ascertained that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Fr Barry Robinson was the Parish Priest in charge of St John's parish, East Melbourne, just a kilometre away from Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral.

In the early 1990s, for reasons that are unclear, the Melbourne archdiocese arranged for Father Robinson to leave Australia. The next annual edition of the Australian Catholic Directory indicated that Fr Barry Robinson was "on leave/overseas". This turned out to be a trip to Boston.

The archbishops

Broken Rites has ascertained that Archbishop Frank Little, who was in charge of the Melbourne archdiocese from 1974 to 1996, collaborated with Boston church officials (including Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law) in placing Father Robinson in Boston in the early 1990s. When Father Robinson suddenly left Boston in 1994, Archbishop Little thanked the Boston church officials for facilitating this quick exit. Thus, U.S. civil authorities were unable to question Fr Barry Robinson about the sexual matter. Under Archbishop Little, Father Robinson was then accepted back into the Melbourne ministry, despite the Melbourne church authorities knowing about the Boston sexual matter.

After 1996, the subsequent Melbourne archbishops continued to confirm Father Robinson working in Melbourne parishes.

After the Boston Globe article on 14 January 2004, Broken Rites contacted one of the paper's investigative journalists, Stephen Kurkjian, and asked him if the court documents gave the names of the Melbourne church officials who handled the Robinson matter.

The journalist replied to Broken Rites:

  • "Most of the communication by Boston church officials was with Rev. Brian Cosgriff, who was then in charge of the Ministry to Priests for the Melbourne Archdiocese.

    "Francis Little was the Melbourne Archbishop at the time and he wrote letters to Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, thanking him for his understanding in the matter."

Boston's disgraced cardinal

The involvement of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law is interesting. In 2002, eight years after helping Father Robinson, Law was publicly exposed for habitually covering up the crimes of sexually-abusive priests over many years.

Cardinal Law then resigned as Boston's archbishop — and Pope John Paul II gave him a refuge (and an appointment) in Rome. The next Pope, Benedict XVI, continued to harbour Cardinal Law in Rome. Thus, the Vatican has helped to protect Bernard Law from legal actions that might be launched against him in the U.S.

And Bernard Law continued to hold the rank of cardinal — that is, a prince of the church.

The priest leaves the U.S.

Father Barry Robison left the U.S. in April 1994 when U.S. civil authorities were about to investigate the welfare of the 16-year-old boy. The Melbourne archdiocese has said that it knew in 1994 about the Boston sexual matter but, despite this, it accepted him back into the Melbourne ministry.

The Boston matter remained a secret within the Melbourne church hierarchy — and they re-assigned Father Robinson to ministry in Melbourne without informing Melbourne Catholics about the Boston matter.

In the mid-1990s, Fr Robinson was appointed as a part-time chaplain at a leading Melbourne hospital (according to a later statement by the Melbourne archdiocese vicar-general, Monsignor Les Tomlinson).

Next, in 1996, the Melbourne archdiocese appointed Fr Robinson to the Williamstown parish (called "St Mary of the Immaculate Conception") in Melbourne's west.

The story breaks in the U.S.

On 14 January 2004 (after Fr Robinson had been at the Williamstown parish for seven years) the Boston Globe published its article about the church documents, filed in court, mentioning Father Barry Robinson's 1994 departure from Boston.

A similar report was also published in the Melbourne Age newspaper two days later. Accoring to the Age, the vicar-general of the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese (Monsignor Les Tomlinson) told the Age that Father Barry Robinsn has acknowledged and confirmed the report about the Boston matter.

Later in 2004, after the Melbourne media had published the revelation about Fr Robinson, Fr Robinson left the Williamstown parish. In next edition of the Australian Catholic directory, in early 2005, Fr Robinson was listed as "care of the archdiocesan office" and "awaiting a new appointment".

Thereafter, Fr Barry Robinson worked as a priest in Melbourne's "supply ministry" — that is, priests who do locum (relieving) work in parishes that are short of a priest. For example, Fr Robinson was listed in this manner in the mid-2009 Australian Catholic directory.

The Boston documents

According to the Boston church documents (filed in court), Father Robinson told his Boston therapist in March 1994 about the teenage boy, whose age was said to be 16. The incidents occurred in the rectory (that is, the parish's house for its priests) in the Blessed Sacrament parish at Jamaica Plain, a neighbourhood in Boston.

The therapist reported this to the Department of Social Services, who reported it to the District Attorney's office.

The Globe reported that U.S. civil authorities wished to check the boy's age and to determine whether the boy was a victim of a criminal offence (the newspaper said that the age of consent under state laws in Boston is 16). However, church officials refused to help the civil authorities to contact the youth.

The Reverend John B. McCormack, who was then the Boston diocese's principal cleric dealing with clergy sexual-abuse allegations (on behalf of Cardinal Bernard Law), knew about Fr Robinson's admission regarding the teenager but McCormack made no attempt to stop Robinson from making a departure from Boston.

Reverend McCormack later advised church officials in Australia that the case against Robinson was dead, according to the court documents. Reverend McCormack wrote to a Melbourne church official in July 1994, three months after Robinson left Boston: "Assure Barry that no further steps have been taken regarding any civil complaint."

And later that year, McCormack assured the same official in a second letter: "There have been no repercussions since Barry left. At one time, the civil authorities were looking for further information about him, but were unsuccessful, to my knowledge."

A spokesman for the Boston diocese, the Reverend Christopher J. Coyne, said that Reverend John McCormack had no control over Robinson to prevent his return to Australia. Coyne said: "That was a decision made by Robinson and his archbishop (in Melbourne)."

The Melbourne archbishop in 1994 was Frank Little, whose stance regarding Robinson was later adopted by Melbourne's subsequent archbishops.

Civil authorities eventually did locate the teenage boy — in 2002 — and sought to interview him to determine whether a crime had been committed against him but the youth did not wish to co-operate with the civil authorities.

Lawyer Roderick MacLeish Jr., whose law firm Greenberg Traurig filed the church records in court in connection with ongoing civil cases against various Boston priests, criticized the handling of the Robinson case by church officials. MacLeish told the Globe that he was particularly interested in determining whether church officials in Boston and Melbourne obstructed justice by facilitating Robinson's sudden departure.

A prominent U.S. journalist (not from Boston) told Broken Rites Australia in an email on 14 January 2004: "The law firm filing these records has been one of the two major ones suing the Boston archdiocese. This firm is reputable. There was an agreement in which the archdiocese offered up lots of records on priests who had and had not been publicly accused. This is how Robinson's name has emerged."

Update in 2009-2010

The Australian Catholic directory for 2009-2010 still listed Rev Father Barry Robinson (on page 315) as a priest doing relieving work in Melbourne.

On 16 May 2010, the Melbourne Sunday Herald Sun published an article (on page 18), in which "a Melbourne archdiocese spokesman" confirmed that the Melbourne archdiocese was still using Father Robinson in 2010 as a relieving priest.

The spokesman indicated that it was acceptable for the Melbourne archdiocese to still use Father Barry Robinson because "Father Robinson has not been charged or found guilty of any criminal conduct".

The spokesman did not mention that in 1994 the Catholic Church evacuated Father Robinson from the United States, back to Australia, out of the reach of the U.S. civil authorities. Therefore, Broken Rites Australia believes that the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese still has some explaining to do about its whole handling of the Fr Barry Robinson matter.