The priest and the schoolgirl: A cover-up is revealed

By a Broken Rites researcher

A Sydney woman (who will be referred to by Broken Rites as "Mandy") has revealed that a Catholic priest (Father Kevin Cox) sexually abused her for six years from the age of eleven. Furthermore, the sexual abuse resulted in a pregnancy at age 17 — and then the priest paid for an abortion.

After these six years, Father Cox reluctantly apologised to the family for his sexual abuse of the girl. He also reluctantly admitted the sexual abuse to his bishop. However, the diocese granted him a transfer to another parish and allowed him to continue working as a priest for the next 15 years, until Mandy finally reported the sexual abuse to the police when she was nearly 32.

After the police charged Father Cox in court with his earliest sexual crimes against the child (at the age of 11 to 13), his supporters in the church sprang to his defence. After a jury convicted him of these crimes, church leaders and priests wrote "good-character" references for him, asking the court for a lenient sentence. A judge gave Cox a part-time jail sentence but church lawyers appealed to a higher court against the criminal conviction and won an acquittal for the priest.

Privately, a church leader apologised to Mandy's mother, acknowledging that the priest had broken his priestly vows in doing what he did to Mandy.

And, to cap it all off, when Father Kevin Cox died in 2008, the Catholic Church gave him a grand funeral service, jointly conducted by three bishops and more than fifty priests. He went to his grave as a church hero.

The priest's background

Broken Rites has ascertained that Father Kevin Nicholas Cox was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1930, of an Irish father and Australian mother. Immediately after leaving school, he entered the Catholic order of Cistercian monks (also known as the Trappist order) at Roscrea, County Offaly, Ireland, to train for the Catholic priesthood.

He was transferred to Australia, when the Cistercians established a monastery at Yarra Glen, near Melbourne, in 1954. A year later, aged 25, he was ordained in Melbourne as a Cistercian priest, with Melbourne's Irish-born Archbishop Daniel Mannix performing the ordination ceremony. Cox adopted the "religious" name Father "Dominic" Cox, after the medieval monk Saint Dominic.

After 20 years in the Melbourne monastery, Father Cox transferred from the Cistercians, on loan, to the Sydney archdiocese, changing his name back to Kevin. The Sydney diocese used him as a relief priest at Kogarah (St Patrick's parish) in 1974-75 and Caringbah (Our Lady of Fatima parish) from 1975 to 1982.

Here is Mandy's story

Mandy's life has been shattered by Cox's sexual abuse, the breach of trust, the loss of faith, her disrupted adolescence, the pregnancy, the abortion and the church's hypocrisy and cover-up.

Broken Rites has digested the following account from typed, sworn statements, made by Mandy, her mother Beryl and other family members, and witnessed by a police officer. The statements were later submitted in the preliminary court proceedings.

Mandy, born in mid-1964, is from a large, devout Sydney Catholic family in Caringbah (in Sydney's south), where the family's life revolved around the "Our Lady of Fatima" parish.

When Father Kevin Cox (then aged 45) joined their parish in 1975 as an assistant priest, he began visiting this family. He eventually took a particular interest in "helping" Mandy, aged 11, who was then a pupil at Father Cox's parish school.

The family trusted Father Cox with Mandy "because he was a Catholic priest". He began meeting Mandy for an early-morning jog at an oval near the Caringbah parish school. After one of these jogs, he jokingly put his hand inside Mandy's shorts and underpants for the first time.

He began spending more time alone with Mandy than the family was aware of — almost daily, either before school or after school or at weekends.

He molested her regularly in the Sacristy (a room near the church altar), telling her that, if anybody knocked on the door of this room, she was to hide. Later, other offences occurred regularly in a spare room at the school, in the presbytery, and in a parked car (sometimes after Saturday evening Mass),

At first, the abuse consisted of Father Cox fingering Mandy's genital area. At first, innocent Mandy did not realise that this was "sex", especially because he was a Catholic priest. On later occasions, the priest made Mandy touch his genitals, and he would ejaculate on her naked body. He told her: "If you tell anybody about this, it will cause a scandal for you."

This forced Mandy to bear the burden of secrecy and deception. She was prevented from telling her parents about the abuse.

Meanwhile, during the years of abuse, Father Cox continued to be a "friend" of Mandy's gullible family. He conducted a wedding ceremony for one of Mandy's sisters and baptised one of Mandy's nephews.

Pregnancy and abortion

Until Mandy was 16, the abuse always stopped short of sexual penetration but, at age 16, it progressed to full sexual intercourse. The intercourse continued for about a year and, at 17, Mandy became pregnant. Around this time, she was finishing Year Eleven at high school.

Father Cox then told Mandy to have an abortion. One of her sisters has made a sworn statement that the priest handed cash to the sister for the abortion, which was performed (after her 17th birthday) at a clinic in Surry Hills in inner-Sydney.

After the abortion, Mandy's mother Beryl was told about it. She was devastated because abortion was contrary to Catholic Church teachings and she was doubly shocked to learn that her daughter had been sexually abused by Father Cox. This undermined the whole basis of the family's Catholicism. At this stage (with Mandy aged 17) her mother presumed that the sexual abuse was relatively recent (perhaps for a year), not realising that it had been going on for six years.

The mother told the police in her sworn statement:

  • 'I was very shocked, and upset... I remember he [Fr Cox] picked me up in his car and drove to the Camelia Garden, Caringbah. We sat in the car and talked. I said to him something like, "You were a friend of all of us, I don't know how I'm going to tell [my husband], he'll want to kill you."

    'I don't remember what he [Cox] said exactly, he was making excuses. He said, "I'm sorry, it's a terrible thing."

After Cox mumbled his apology, the mother demanded that he tell his bishop about the sexual abuse, which he did. She also demanded that he leave this parish. The mother's statement says: "Father Cox must have spoken to the bishop because he left the parish very soon afterwards. I believe he went to the Pyrmont area [in inner-Sydney]."

Cover-up

The Caringbah parish gave Fr Cox a farewell party but the parishioners were not told the real reason why he was leaving.

The sex abuse did not affect Father Cox's career. Indeed, at his later parishes, he was rewarded with a promotion from "Assistant Priest" (at Caringbah) to "Administrator" or "Parish Priest" (that is, in charge) of Sydney parishes. Broken Rites has found him listed at:

  • Pyrmont (St Bede's), 1982-87;
  • Auburn (St John of God), 1988;
  • Woollahra (Holy Cross parish), 1989-91, acting as the parish administrator on behalf of retired archbishop James Carroll; and
  • Enmore-Tempe (St Pius V parish), as the Parish Priest in charge, 1992-96.

The congregations in these parishes were not told the reason why Father Cox had been rescued out of the Caringbah parish.

The impact on Mandy

Because of the priest's sexual abuse, Mandy's personal development was crippled. For example, when assaulting Mandy, the priest used to tell her: "Look what you are making me do — you naughty girl, you!" This blaming of Mandy convinced her that she is a "bad" person, and she is still suffering from the effects of this guilt.

Mandy's mother still did not realise that the sexual abuse began at the age of 11, not just 17. The mother had been puzzled for years why Mandy developed into such a disturbed and "naughty" girl from about age 11 onwards.

Another impact was that the priest monopolised Mandy's adolescent years, so she did not develop proper relationships with boys and girls her own age. And because her first "sexual" experience was with a Catholic priest, this damaged the way in which she would later be expected to develop a sexual relationship with an appropriate person of her own choosing.

She married in 1986 (aged 22) but the marriage broke up. One problem was that the trauma about the priest haunted Mandy's mind and it hindered her sexual relationship with her husband.

Mandy was now living in poverty with her two children, whereas the church was still providing accommodation and income for the priest. Depressed, Mandy tried to take her own life.

The church shuns Mandy

For many years after the abortion, Mandy remained silent about what Father Kevin Cox and the Catholic Church had done to her life. Like many church-abuse victims, she felt powerless to tackle the Catholic Church.

Early in 1996, Mandy began having counselling with a Sydney nun (Sister "Mary") but Mandy's emotional health was deteriorating. After consulting Mandy's family, Sister Mary notified the Sydney archdiocese about what Father Cox had done to Mandy and her family. Around Easter 1996, the archdiocese withdrew Fr Cox from the Enmore-Tempe parish, announcing that he was going "on leave".

To help her healing, Mandy wished to have a meeting with church officials, with Fr Cox present, so that Cox would offer her an apology in person. However, no such a meeting or apology was granted.

During 1996, the Australian bishops announced a new strategy on managing church sexual-abuse complaints (the "Towards Healing" project). On 26 November 1996, one of Mandy's close relatives (let us call her "Abbie") wrote (in confidence) to a leading spokesman for "Towards Healing", pleading for help for Mandy through "Towards Healing". This letter (and Broken Rites has examined a copy) explained how Mandy's life had been disrupted by Cox (damaging her faith and leaving her in poverty) and asking the church to help her to achieve "healing".

However, the archdiocese failed to help Mandy. This neglect was contrary to the "Towards Healing" document, which had promised (in paragraph 17 on page 4 of the 1996 edition): "The church authority shall immediately enter into dialogue with victims concerning their needs and ensure they are given such assistance as is demanded by justice and compassion."

Police charges

From this time on, Broken Rites received an occasional phone call from one or other of Mandy's relatives, reporting on developments and discussing strategies for obtaining justice.

Rejected by the archdiocese, Mandy no longer felt any obligation to maintain the church's code of silence about its sexual abuse. Therefore, she contacted Sydney's Petersham police station and was interviewed by Detective Stephen Rae. In May 1997 (aged 31) she made a sworn, signed police statement, outlining her encounters with Father Cox from the age of eleven onwards.

Following a police investigation, prosecutors selected three of the many incidents in Mandy's statement. The prosecution charged Father Cox with indecent assault (i.e., non-penetrative sexual activity) involving a child under 16. From the numerous encounters between Cox and Mandy, the prosecution charged Cox regarding three incidents:

  1. the first jogging incident at the Caringbah oval (when Mandy was aged 11);
  2. the first incident in the church sacristy (aged 11); and
  3. one of the early car-parking incidents (at Wanda Beach, aged 13).

The prosecution alleged that these assaults up to age 13 included Cox fingering the girl's genitals and also him rubbing his own genitals against her until he ejaculated on the outside of her body.

The prosecutors confined the charges to these early incidents because the penetrative sex after the age of 16 is more difficult to prosecute if the defendant claims to have had the 16-year-old victim's consent (whereas "consent" is not allowable as a defence if the victim is a child under 16). Nor was it a criminal offence for a priest to pay for an abortion.

When Mandy's mother Beryl (at the age of 71) learned the details of these charges, she realised for the first time that the priest's sexual abuse of Mandy began at age 11, not 17.

Preliminary court hearing

Late in 1997, preliminary proceedings were held before a magistrate at Sutherland Local Court.

Cox's defence was arranged by the legal firm Carroll and O'Dea, who were the solicitors for the Sydney Catholic archdiocese. He was represented in court by a senior (and up-and-coming) barrister, whose sibling was a very senior priest in the Sydney archdiocese.

Cox was driven to court every day by a fellow priest, who sat in the courtroom as Cox's personal support person.

The clergy, however, did not comfort Mandy or her mother or sisters. In fact, in court the church's legal team was clearly trying to defeat Mandy.

In court, armed by the church's legal team, Father Cox entered a plea of "not guilty".

Journalists knew that the charged priest was named Father Kevin Cox, but during these preliminary proceedings, the magistrate imposed a media-suppression order, prohibiting media outlets from naming the priest or the parish. A barrister from News Limited (publishers of the Sydney Daily Telegraph) went to the court, applying for the suppression order to be lifted, but the magistrate refused.

The intercourse, the pregnancy and the abortion at age 17 were mentioned at the magistrate's hearing, and this information helped to demonstrate Father Cox's propensity for sexual abuse.

Following normal practice in a contested case, the magistrate then "committed" Cox (that is, he scheduled him) to undergo a jury trial in a higher court, the New South Wales District Court.

Jury trial

The jury trial was held, chaired by a judge (not a magistrate), in the District Court at Campbelltown (in Sydney's south-west) in October 1998. For jury purposes, the prosecutors again confined the charges to the three incidents that had been selected for the 1997 preliminary hearing.

Before the jury was selected, the judge made rulings about the trial procedure. The judge ruled that the jury must not be allowed to know about the intercourse and the pregnancy, both of which occurred after Mandy's 16th birthday. The judge's reason for this is that the three charged incidents were confined to Mandy's earlier years (at the age of 11 to 13) — well before the pregnancy and the abortion. In any sexual assault case, the victim's 16th birthday is an important cut-off date, because after this birthday a defendant can try claiming that he had the victim's consent, which is not possible to claim under the age of 16.

The judge refused to let the jury hear evidence from Mandy's mother or two sisters.

He allowed the church lawyers to ask Mandy very personal questions about when she entered puberty.

The church lawyers tabled a letter (mentioned earlier in this article) which "Abbie" (a relative of Mandy) had written in confidence to "Towards Healing" about Father Cox's abuse of Mandy and the effects on Mandy's subsequent life. In court, the church lawyers used this letter in an attempt to discredit Mandy, claiming that Mandy's allegations must have been merely a trick to obtain "compensation".

Guilty verdict

In October 1998, the District Court jury found Cox guilty on the first two incidents and it let him off on the third.

The judge heard submissions from the prosecution and from the defence regarding what sort of sentence should be imposed.

Ms Robyn Denes, who appeared in court representing the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, told court that the seriousness of Father Cox's offences could not be under-estimated.

She said: "The breach of trust is all the more stunning because of the awe and respect the children [in the parish] held him in. He was a priest in a parish who committed offences against a young girl who was part of the parish. The evidence discloses a systematic abuse of a young child. She was eleven years old when it happened."

Ms Denes said that there had been no evidence of contrition or remorse from Father Cox.

The church's legal team had assembled a thick file of "character" references from bishops and priests, all urging a lenient sentence for the priest. This file was submitted in court by the church's defence lawyer Paul Byrne, Senior Counsel. Byrne, who was hired for this trial (though not for the previous preliminary prodeedings), was one of the most prominent criminal lawyers in Sydney.

A part-time sentence

Instead of sentencing Cox to a normal jail term, the judge gave him two years of periodic detention — that is, part-time jail, which could be served (for example) at weekends.

The state prosecutor then asked the judge to lift the media-suppression order on the publication of Cox's name but the judge refused, thereby protecting the priest and the church. At this stage, therefore, Father Cox's name (and his conviction) could not appear in the media. The sentence was reported in the Sydney Daily Telegraph on 31 October 1998, page 15, with the priest not named.

Appeal

The NSW Director of Public Prosecutions appealed to a higher court about the leniency of Cox's sentence, while the church lawyers appealed against the conviction.

Three judges heard the appeal. This was not a re-trial and there was therefore no jury. The three judges reviewed the transcript of the jury trial and based their decision on this reading, plus legal submissions by the prosecutors and the church lawyers.

The appeal judges delivered their written judgement on 31 March 1999. The appeal judges noted that, although Cox was charged with three incidents, Mandy had difficulty in distinguishing each of the three charged incidents from the numerous other similar uncharged occasions.

The judges allowed Cox's appeal on the ground of the complainant's inability in evidence to state precise dates and times of the three charged offences.

They also decided that the two convictions were unreasonable because they were "inconsistent" with the acquittal on the third charge. Therefore, to achieve "consistency", the judges overturned the convictions on the first two charges.

One of the appeal judges, in his written judgement, made several puzzling statements, including:

  • This judge rejected the allegation that Cox's sexual assaults occurred almost daily. He wrote: "While this intensity of sexual activity is, of course, possible, to my mind it is improbable." (Really?)
  • This judge mistakenly referred to the jogging incident taking place at the "Canterbury" oval instead of the Caringbah oval. (How carefully did His Honour read the trial transcript?)

Media reports

At the appeal hearing, the church lawyers neglected to seek an extension of the media-suppression order. Therefore the appeal result was reported in Sydney newspapers, which published Father Kevin Cox's name for the first time. The Daily Telegraph named Cox on (1 April 1999, p. 15.

Later, Mandy's family was keen for the church's behaviour to receive more detailed media exposure. Mandy gave an interview to the Sunday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald (the Sun-Herald), which published a feature article by senior journalist Alex Mitchell. This article, too, named Cox.

Thus, the cover-up was exposed.

Despite Cox "getting off" in the criminal courts, the church hierarchy acknowledged privately that Father Cox did indeed break his priestly vows in his sexual abuse of Mandy. According to the church's "Towards Healing" document, the breaking of priestly vows constitutes sexual abuse.

A senior member of the Sydney archdiocese hierarchy later visited Mandy's mother and apologised on behalf of the church for what Father Cox had done to Mandy and to the family.

Still a priest

From the time he was charged by police in 1997 until the appeal court result in 1999, Father Kevin Cox was listed in the annual Australian Catholic Directory as "on leave", although still living in church premises. Mandy's family members believe that, during his court proceedings, Cox was residing in the Leichhardt parish (in Sydney's inner-west), where a friend of Cox was working as a priest.

After his successful appeal, the Sun-Herald reported that Cox would continue as a priest, possibly overseas. (This indicated that Cox still had the blessing of the Catholic hierarchy in Sydney and elsewhere.)

The Sun-Herald article about Cox alarmed many readers, who were concerned about the issue of child protection, especially as some of the Catholic Church's abuse victims were starting to report these crimes to the police, instead of just reporting them to a church official. This public exposure of Father Cox (and the church's cover-up) embarrassed the church, which issued a written statement a week later at the Caringbah parish, acknowledging the Cox court case but declaring the matter "closed".

Another victim

The Sun-Herald article about Mandy prompted an anonymous woman to write to her after tracing Mandy's family through the telephone directory. This letter provided proof that Mandy was not the only person who was sexually abused by Father Cox. The letter, received by Mandy on 26 May 1999, said:

  • "I was saddened and a little distressed to read of your recent experience with the law and the church. Not only because of the apparent injustice of the situation, but because I believed that you were most likely to be telling the truth.

    "And the reason for this belief is that I, too, had a liaison with the person in question [that is, Father Cox]. However, since I was married, in my early twenties, at the time, I've always thought that it was my responsibility and my fault. I did not realise that I had other feelings about it all until I read of your experiences. Perhaps I could have expected to be protected from such an experience. Perhaps I could have expected better behaviour from a priest, maybe that he would protect me from my own self-destructiveness, not collude with me in it. Maybe it wasn't ALL my fault.

    "I'm really not too sure of the purpose of this letter, except to tell you that I support you and feel for you. I can't imagine what it must be like to have gone through all that, and then have it turned back on you. I only hope that, in some way, you can now put it behind you, and become the woman you were meant to be, unfettered by memories of the past, and strengthened by the courage and conviction you demonstrated in telling your story.

    "I have this vision of you receiving great bags of mail, just like this one, from all the women who most likely have a similar story to tell. Perhaps they, too, will in some way be freed by your story, and now be able to recognise that it was not their fault. They did not, and do not, deserve to be treated in this manner. My hope is that the burden you have carried will be lifted from you, and that you will now be free to achieve your potential.

    "No-one can really understand what you have endured, but in sending you these thoughts of love, and encouragement, and thanks, perhaps I can return a little of what you have given to me

    "P.S. Because I lack your courage, I will remain anonymous."

Broken Rites is wondering: How many other victims did Father Kevin Cox have?

No more parishes

After the publication of Cox's name in the Sydney newspapers, the church did not appoint him to any more parishes in Sydney. Every year since 1999, Broken Rites has checked Fr Kevin Cox's listing in the annual edition of the Australian Catholic directories. From 2000 to 2008, these volumes continued to list Fr Kevin Cox as a priest of the Sydney archdiocese. His address was listed as "retired, care of the Sydney archdiocesan office".

The Catholic Church continued to look after Father Cox. About 2002, when he was aged 72, the church provided accommodation for him in a residence for retired priests at Culburra, a popular holiday destination on the New South Wales south coast.

A grand farewell for a church hero

In 2008, Reverend Father Kevin Cox (still a priest and still "reverend") died, aged 78. His funeral took place in one of his former Sydney parishes — at St Pius' Church, Enmore — on Thursday, 4 December 2008. A glowing obituary of Father Cox appeared in the Sydney Catholic Weekly, 21 December, 2008.

Cox's Requiem Mass was concelebrated (that is, jointly conducted) by three of Sydney's auxiliary bishops (Bishops David Cremin, Julian Porteous and Terry Brady) and more than fifty priests.

Bishop Cremin, who was one of Sydney's three auxiliary bishops at the time of Mandy's pregnancy, was born in Ireland (the same country as Kevin Cox) in 1930 (the same year as Cox). Cremin retired in 2005.

Auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who retired in 2004 (and who often has expressed sympathy for church victims), is not mentioned in the report of the funeral. Presumably he did not attend.

The Catholic Weekly obituary stated: "His [Fr Cox's] requiem was a prime example of good liturgy. It was free-flowing and personal, like Fr Cox himself. "

The obituary said: "The Mass, led by Bishop David Cremin, from the placing of symbols to the final commendation, led by Fr Tom Feunell, was personal, reverent and prayerful. Bishop David let it flow and proceed without in any way interfering with the harmonious liturgy arranged by Fr John Ford and colleagues."

According to the 2010 edition of the annual Australian Catholic Directory, the above-mentioned Father John G. Ford has retired from parish work. His former Sydney parishes include Pyrmont, Stanmore and Leichhardt.

At the requiem, a homily was delivered by Fr Kevin O'Grady (a Sydney priest for more than fifty years), who told those present: "Kevin Cox was my friend. You are here today because he was your friend also."

Summing up Father Cox's life, Fr O'Grady told the congregation: "What a wonderful mixture of a life so joyful."

Broken Rites is wondering what Mandy and her mother and sisters would make of this final day of cover-up.