The Melbourne archdiocese excused a priest's abuse of power

By a Broken Rites researcher

The Melbourne archdiocese allowed a priest (Father Graham Redfern) to continue in the priesthood after a church investigation found that the priest had sexually abused a teenager while the youth was in a vulnerable state, grieving over his mother's death. The abuse allegedly began after Father Redfern had performed the funeral service of the youth's mother. Evidently the archdiocese did not regard Father Redfern's breach of priestly power as serious enough to dismiss a priest.

The Melbourne archdiocese decision was in contrast to a previous promise by the Australian Catholic Bishops. In 1996, the Australian bishops issued a pastoral letter to Australian Catholics regarding church sexual abuse. The bishops stated that "serious offenders who have abused their power may not be given such power again".

In this article Broken Rites will refer to the teenager as "Julian" (not his real name).

Julian's complaint to the church was investigated by the Melbourne archdiocese's officially-appointed complaints officer, Mr Peter O'Callaghan, a Queen's Counsel. After interviewing Julian and Father Redfern (and after examining all available documentation), Mr O'Callaghan ruled that Father Redfern had indeed sexually abused Julian and that Father Redfern had thus abused his priestly power.

According to Mr O'Callaghan's documents, Julian stated that he had his 18th birthday in 1976. Seven weeks later, his mother died. Father Redfern (then a parish priest at St Mary's parish in Dandenong, in Melbourne's south east) gave the Last Rites to Julian's mother and celebrated her Requiem Mass. While Julian was grieving, Father Redfern (saying "just call me Graham") offered to take Julian on trips. Julian alleged that Father Redfern touched him sexually on several occasions, including while in a motel bedroom. Julian stated that he found it hard to avoid Father Redfern's outings because his older siblings (not knowing the facts) presumed that a Catholic priest would be a good influence on him during his bereavement.

According to Mr O'Callaghan's documents, Julian first made his complaint against Father Redfern on 6 September 1993, to the then vicar-general of the archdiocese, Monsignor Gerald Cudmore, but the archdiocese protected Father Redfern, who was allowed to continue ministering at the "Immaculate Conception" parish in Seymour (at the northern end of the Melbourne archdiocese).

Three years later, in 1996, the Melbourne archdiocese appointed Mr Peter O'Callaghan, QC, to receive (and adjudicate on) any complaints about sexual abuse by Melbourne diocesan clergy.

On 13 April 1997 Julian wrote to Mr O'Callaghan, again reporting the sexual abuse and requesting (this time) that Father Redfern be removed from the ministry (in line with the Australian Bishops' promise in 1996).

After investigating, Mr O'Callaghan presented his findings to the archdiocese in a six-page report on 19 November, 1997. The report began: "I am satisfied that ["Julian"] was the victim of sexual abuse by Fr. Graham Redfern."

Mr O'Callaghan reported that Father Redfern "has admitted impropriety and abuse (on his part) of power, position and status, which he deeply regrets".

The Melbourne archdiocese formally apologised in a letter to Julian on 12 May 1998 for the "wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the hands of Father Redfern".

Mr O'Callaghan also recommended that the archdiocese pay compensation to Julian. The archdiocese's compensation panel then granted a modest ex-gratia payment to Julian [this out-of-court settlement is a cost-effective way for the archdiocese to protect itself from any further legal liability towards a victim].

After Mr O'Callaghan's findings (and the settlement), the Melbourne archdiocese allowed Father Redfern to continue working as a priest. In late 1996 Fr Redfern was appointed to the "St Thomas More" parish at Mount Eliza (south of Melbourne). The archdiocese did not tell the Mount Eliza parishioners about Father Redfern's abuse of priestly power in the Julian matter. Father Redfern remained at Mt Eliza until early 2001.

Church statement

In early April 2002 a Melbourne Sunday Age journalist learned about the "Julian" matter. The journalist faxed some questions to the Melbourne archdiocese's Vicar-General (Monsignor Christopher Prowse), querying the retention of Father Redfern in the ministry (in view of the Australian Bishops' promise in 1996).

In a written media statement (dated 5 April 2002), Monsignor Prowse confirmed that that the decision in 1996 to allow Father Redfern to remain a priest was made by the Melbourne archbishop.

Monsignor Prowse's statement said: "It is the Archbishop who decides whether a priest should continue in the ministry... The Archbishop decided that in the circumstances, Fr Redfern should continue in the ministry... Despite what occurred in 1976, the Archbishop was satisfied that it would not be in the public interest and that it would be unnecessary and unfair to exclude Fr Redfern from the ministry."

Early in his statement, Monsignor Prowse summarised Father Redfern's offence thus: "In 1976 Fr Redfern engaged in improper sexual conduct with an adult (aged 18 years and some months)."

However, Monsignor Prowse did not mention Mr O'Callaghan's ruling about the abuse of priestly power. Monsignor Prowse did not mention that the "improper sexual conduct" occurred after Fr Redfern conducted the Last Rites and Requiem Mass for the youth's mother.

Don't the Last Rites, the Requiem Mass and the grieving make it more serious than merely "improper sexual conduct"?

Did Monsignor Prowse mean that it is permissible for a priest to use his priestly power to take sexual advantage of a vulnerable person (for example, after conducting the funeral service of the victim's mother) if the victim is aged 18 (instead of younger)? What is the permissible age (according to the Melbourne archdiocese) for Catholic priests to abuse their power against a vulnerable parishioner?

Is it 17 years?

Or 16?

Or what?

Pastoral care

According to the Catholic Church's 1996 protocol on church sexual abuse, it is not acceptable for priests (or other church persons in authority) to commit a breach of pastoral power (or a breach of professional ethics) on a person who is in their custody, custody or supervision.

In line with this, Julian's letter of complaint to Peter O'Callaghan, QC, on 13 April 1997 stated his complaint clearly:

  • "I wish to draw your attention to an abuse of pastoral power committed by Father Graham Redfern... The abuse of power was committed in 1976-7 while I was a teenager and while I was in the care of Father Redfern in his fiduciary role as pastor. The abuse began just after the death of my mother, while I was in a state of shock and grief because of the bereavement."

Julian's letter said that Father Redfern's continued presence in the ministry contradicts the April 1996 claim by the Australian Catholic Bishops that serious offenders who have abused their power may not be given such power again.

The priest's background

Father Graham Redfern was born in 1945 and was ordained in Melbourne in the early 1970s.

His Melbourne parishes included: Dandenong and Melton (1970s); Oakleigh, Dandenong North and Altona North (1980s); Seymour (1989 to late 1995) and Mount Eliza (1996 to early 2001).

The annual edition of the Australian Catholic directory for 2009-2010 (page 315) indicates that Father Redfern has continued working in the Melbourne archdiocese's "supply ministry" (that is, as a relieving priest).

Throughout his career, he has also been a part-time military chaplain. The 2009-2010 Catholic directory indicates that he is associated with the Australian Army base at Puckapunyal in central Victoria (page 594) and is associated with Army reserve units (page 595).

An Australian Government Defence Department publication (updated in January 2010) cited Chaplain Graham Redfern as the Army staff chaplain for Victoria who has the responsibility of assisting in the recruiting of new army chaplains in Victoria.


Broken Rites possesses copies of all the relevant reports, correspondence and other documents referred to in this article.