A priest admitted abusing a child but the church covered up this offence for 50 years

By a Broken Rites researcher

One way in which the Catholic Church has traditionally covered up its sex-abuse crimes is by not revealing any written record about complaints. But in 2013, prominent Australian journalist Geraldine Willesee forced the Perth archdiocese to release a 1963 letter which reveals that a priest (Father Brian Gerard Harris) admitted abusing her when she was a pupil in his custody, aged 14, at a Catholic school in Perth. The priest's admission indicates that he was committing a possible criminal offence but the church managed to conceal this information from the police. The church allowed Father Harris to continue as a priest and it successfully concealed Father Harris's admission for 50 years until 2013.

The letter, dated 4 December 1963, was written by a Perth parish priest (Father Cyril Stinson) to Perth's then Archbishop (the Irish-born Redmond Prendiville). In it, Stinson urges the archbishop to deal with his assistant priest, Fr Harris, who (he warns) could "go to prison" for his behaviour towards the child (that is, such a jailing would damage the reputation of the Catholic Church).

Starting with Prendiville, there have now been five consecutive archbishops of Perth who have had access to this letter in their files but, until 2013, they have refused to release it.

Father Brian Gerard Harris (born in Perth on 19 May 1930) was recruited at the age of 14 as an aspirant to study for career in the priesthood of the Perth archdiocese and then, from the age of 23, he spent his whole life ministering in that archdiocese. He was aged 33 in 1963 when he admitted that he had been behaving improperly towards 14-year-old Geraldine.

This schoolgirl eventually developed a career as a well-known journalist — Geraldine Willesee. In 2010 Geraldine Willesee discovered a picture of Harris in a Catholic newspaper. He was still a priest and had just been awarded a papal medal for his "apostolic work".

In 2010 Geraldine Willesee began tackling the Perth archdiocese about its cover-up of Harris's 1963 behaviour. In 2010, Archbishop Barry Hickey confirmed the existence of the 1963 letter but refused to release it to Geraldine Willesee, even though the letter related to her.

Father Harris died in May 2012. In a glowing obituary, Harris was praised by Perth's current archbishop (Tim Costelloe) and his predecessor (Archbishop Barry Hickey).

In late 2012, not long after Father Harris's death, the Australian Government announced plans for a national Royal Commission of Inquiry into child-abuse in religious and other institutions. In early 2013, the government declared that this commission would have the power to force churches and other institutions to hand over any relevant documents.

Accordingly, on 7 February 2013 (nine months after Harris's death), the Perth archdiocese released the 1963 letter about Harris, although parts of the letter (including some names) were blacked out.

On 22 February 2013 Geraldine published an article in Fairfax Media publications, in which she quoted from Father Stinson's 1963 letter to his archbishop. The following extracts are from Geraldine Willesee's summary of the letter.

Stinson's letter is focussed on possible damage to the reputation of the church, rather than on the damage that might have been done to the 14-year-old child.

The letter begins:

  • "Your Lordship, It is with deep regret that I feel it my duty to submit the following report concerning my curate, Father Brian Harris."

The next paragraph is blacked out as are many names of other priests. Stinson then describes a day when he returned to his Perth presbytery early.

  • "I noticed Fr Harris's car was in the backyard. The whole house was locked ... By the time I unlocked the front door Fr Harris was running into the front room from his own quarters. He was dressed in his shirt and slacks and sox.

    "I went to my own room for a while ... then went down to Fr's to question him about a funeral ...

    "Father was now fully dressed. To my amazement also in the room was a young girl in ... [school] uniform. I recognised the girl as Geraldine Willesee ... daughter of Senator Don Willesee."

Stinson decides not to say anything in front of the girl, and Harris drives her home.

  • "He came back shortly afterwards, bright and breezy, and made no reference to the incident. I mentioned the matter to [BLACKED OUT] and to Fr O'Brien and both of them were appalled at his stupidity ..."

    "Fr O'Brien was insistent that I should question Fr further ... [a week later I] did challenge him. He was very abusive and insolent, claimed that I always treated him with suspicion ... claimed that a nun, Mother [BLACKED OUT] ... had rung him and asked him to try and help this girl who had many problems.

    "I told him ... I thought I would have to report the matter. He told me to go right ahead, that he had nothing to fear and he would have his story to tell.'' [Geraldine Willesee believes that this may have been a reference to Stinson's drinking habits.]

    "I gave the matter an awful lot of thought and prayer that night and decided to accept his explanation."

Father Stinson decides to join Harris at a youth Mass the next day and say a few words asking the youth to co-operate with Fr Harris and asking the parents to be grateful to him and to help him in his efforts.

  • "Fr thanked me. As I found out later he then saw the girl again that day and the following day.

    "Fr O'Brien rang me ... the following day, Monday ... I told him I had decided ... to put the whole thing down to irresponsibility and lack of commonsense ... I would point out to Fr Harris his stupidity and appeal to him to try and grow up..."

Later in the letter, Fr Stinson writes:

  • "Fr O'Brien confronted Fr Harris. Fr Harris thought the girl had named him and admitted it was all true. Fr O'Brien came that night and told me the story. Fr Harris approached me next morning, admitted it was all true and asked if I would give him another chance.

    "I pointed out that he had had many chances ... [and] that he could go to jail for interfering with minors. [Stinson's reference to "previous chances" indicates that this might not be the first child who was in danger with Father Harris.]

    "I had a long discussion with Fr [BLACKED OUT] who was most definite that Fr Harris should go away for several weeks."

Stinson and another priest, Father Nolan, did a deal with Harris: go into seclusion for two weeks, then put himself in Nolan's hands.

  • "On Monday last I inquired from Fr Nolan as to progress only to be told that Fr Harris had not been back near him."

Stinson's letter has a postscript: "Fr Harris assured me that there had been no intercourse." Geraldine Willesee's article for Fairfax Media says: "That is true. There was no intercourse, just degradation."

According to the Perth archdiocese, church files contain no further information about what (if anything) was done about Father Harris after his admission about his behaviour towards the 14-year-old chil. There is no record of any reprimand. The archdiocese did not refer the matter to the civil child-protection authorities, such as the police child-abuse investigation squad.

Evidently Father Harris was merely granted a few weeks' holiday, before being rewarded with an appointment to a new parish.

Geraldine's death

The victim, Geraldine Willesee, died in June 2016 at her home in Sydney. Her daughter, Dani Baxter, told the media that Geraldine's that her battle with the Catholic Church, regarding the church's cover-up of Father BrianHarris, “took the last bit of energy out of her”.

“It was an extremely stressful experience, but I know that Mum wouldn’t cease something because it was difficult,” Ms Baxter said. “She was very much of the mind that bad things happen when good people say nothing. That was a motto she lived by.”

The priest's career

According to Broken Rites research, Brian Gerard Harris was born in Perth on 19 May 1930, the oldest in a family of five. He attended St Mary’s Primary School in Leederville and Christian Brothers College Leederville. Meanwhile, from the age of seven, he was friendly with the local priests, becoming an altar boy. He envisaged a career like these priests — that is, a full-time professional Catholic. And (as he later told an interviewer in 2009), "the lovely young priests helped me on the way". At 14, he was recruited as an aspirant for the priesthood by Reverend Lancelot John Goody, who was then the rector of St Charles Seminary in Perth (Goody later became the archbishop of Perth). After studying at St Patrick’s College seminary in Sydney, Harris was ordained for the Perth archdiocese on 25 July 1953, aged 23.

He then ministered at St Mary's Cathedral parish in Perth, was a chaplain at Royal Perth Hospital (including being a chaplain for nurses) and thereafter worked in various parishes of the Perth Archdiocese. An article in Perth's Catholic Record newspaper said that Fr Harris "enjoys" his chaplaincy work at the East Victoria Park Campus of Ursula Frayne College (for children from year 1 to year 12).

In 2009, Fr Harris was honoured with a Papal Award — Croce pro Ecclesia et Pontifice — in recognition of his apostolic work for the Church throughout more than 50 years of priesthood.

But the church's praise of Father Brian Gerard Harris does not mention certain behaviour of his that was covered up in 1963.