Father Peter L. Comensoli was jailed but was allowed to remain "reverend"

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 3 July 2018

This Broken Rites article gives another Australian example of a Catholic priest who was not immediately laicized after being jailed for child-sex crimes. In 1989, the Wollongong Catholic diocese (south of Sydney) was warned that Father Peter Lewis Comensoli was sexually abusing boys in his parish, but the church authorities allowed him to continue in parish work. In 1993, a newspaper exposed this church scandal. Police then charged Comsensoli and he was jailed in 1994. But the church failed to laicize him and he was listed as "Reverend" for the next 16 years, until his name finally vanished from church directories in 2010 — 16 years after his conviction. As explained at the end of this article, this Father Peter Lewis Comensoli should not be mistaken for another Catholic clergyman — his cousin, Bishop Peter Andrew Comensoli who has been appointed (in June 2018) to become the next Archbishop of Melbourne.

In the Sydney District Court on 18 October 1994, Father Peter Lewis Comensoli (then aged 55, of the Wollongong diocese, south of Sydney) was sentenced to 24 months jail (18 months minimum) after pleading guilty to the indecent assault of altar boys. His conviction was reported in Sydney and Wollongong newspapers.

Despite this conviction, the annual edition of the Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy (published by the National Council of Priests) continued to include the "Reverend" Peter Lewis Comensoli, describing him as a "supplementary priest" of the Wollongong diocese. His name was not dropped from the annual Australian Catholic directories until 2010 — sixteen years after his conviction.

Background

According to statements made in court, Peter Lewis Comensoli was born of Italian and Irish parents about 1939. Educated at Catholic schools in the Wollongong district, he was ordained as a priest in 1965, aged 26, to minister in parishes in the Wollongong diocese.

By the 1980s, according to the annual Australian Catholic Directory for 1988, Peter Lewis Comensoli was also a senior member of the Wollongong Diocesan Tribunal, which deals with such things as applications for a marriage annulment. (It is not clear what qualified Comensoli to be involved in dealing with people's marriages.)

Peter Lewis Comensoli's adult parishioners originally presumed that he was a trustworthy priest. He befriended young boys, paying them well for doing odd jobs. But behind the presbytery doors he gave alcohol to boys, played pornographic videos, used obscene language and wrestled naked with the boys, indecently handling them.

Complaints

In 1989, a number of high school students told another Wollongong priest, Fr Maurie Crocker, that they had been sexually abused by Father Peter Lewis Comensoli and by Christian Brother Michael Evans. Father Crocker alerted the church authorities but (he said later) the church authorities did not seem surprised or alarmed. The church allowed Comensoli to continue in parish work — that is, still dealing with young people.

In 1993, Wollongong's Illawarra Mercury daily newspaper decided to expose Father Comensoli and Brother Evans. These articles led to a police investigation of Peter Lewis Comensoli and Michael Evans.

Two of Peter Lewis Comensoli's victims agreed to make a signed, sworn police statement. These two victims were aged 10 and 17, when they were altar boys at one of Comensoli's earlier parishes — St Mary's parish in Berkeley, in urban Wollongong.

Peter Lewis Comsensoli then resigned from his current parish (St Brigid's at Gwynneville, in urban Wollongong). The Wollongong diocese leadership accepted the resignation. A diocesan spokesman was quoted in the Mercury (9 November 1993, page 1) as saying: "He [Fr Comensoli] will always be a priest of the diocese but he is not working in the diocese at the moment."

Court proceedings

When charged in court, Peter Lewis Comensoli pleaded guilty. Thus, he was automatically convicted in relation to these two boys. Therefore, the court proceedings were brief — merely for sentencing.

Regarding the 10-year-old boy, Peter Lewis Comensoli pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting him during a 12-month period in 1979-80 on occasions when the altar boy spent the night at the parish presbytery with the permission of his parents. The court was told that Comensoli would touch the boy's genitals while wrestling him and used indecent language in front of him. He gave cigarettes and alcohol to the boy. Eventually, Comensoli showed pornographic videos to the child, followed by further wrestling, and Comensoli then removed the child's trousers and mauled his genitals.

Regarding the 17-year-old boy, the assault occurred on one occasion in 1982-83 at the parish presbytery when Peter Lewis Comensoli provided the youth with alcohol before showing him pornographic videos, talking to him in a grossly sexual manner and then taking hold of the young man's genital area during a wrestle.

During pre-sentencing submissions by the defence, Bishop Patrick Power (of the Canberra-Goulburn diocese) appeared in court as a defence witness. He said Father Peter Lewis Comensoli had been ordained at a time when priests were not given "any help at all in terms of personal development particularly to terms of coping with our sexuality or even recognizing our sexuality."

Sentencing Peter Lewis Comensoli, Judge Angela Karpin told a courtroom full of clergymen and parishioners: "Those in a position of trust must know that they will not be treated lightly if they offend."

The judge sentenced Peter Lewis Comensoli to two years in prison for the assault of the 10-year-old boy with a minimum term of 12 months and a cumulative term of six months to prison for the assault on the 17-year-old. This indicated that Comensoli was scheduled to remain in prison until at least April 1996. The judge ordered that Comensoli be kept in protective custody.

Other victims?

The two victims in this court case were not necessarily Peter Lewis Comensoli's only victims — these were two who finally spoke to police, while other people remained silent.

Father Maurie Crocker, the Wollongong priest who supported the victims in the Comensoli case, told Broken Rites in a phone conversation on 30 March 1995: "There are still other Comensoli victims out there. They are hesitant to come forward."

According to Fr Crocker, one Comensoli victim had become a teacher in a Catholic school. This man was told by the church authorities:'Remember who you work for.'

Still "Reverend"

Despite his conviction, Reverend Father Peter Lewis Comensoli was not laicized or defrocked.

Broken Rites has researched Comensoli's subsequent movements in the annual editions of the Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy, published by the National Council of Priests.

  • From 1994 onwards (during the prosecution process and later While he was in jail), this directory listed him as "Reverend" Peter Lewis Comensoli, a "supplementary priest of the Wollongong diocese, on leave", with a postal address care of the Wollongong diocesan office. After he left jail, this listing continued every year until (and including) 2002.
  • From 2003 until 2006, this directory still described Peter Lewis Comensoli as "a supplementary priest, on leave from the Wollongong diocese" but his postal address was listed as a Post Office Box in Thornbury, a suburb of Melbourne (until 2005) and at a Post Office Box in Melbourne's Coburg area in 2006.
  • Wollongong sources told Broken Rites in 2006 that Father Peter Lewis Comensoli was doing some work for an order of Religious Brothers in Melbourne.
  • In 2007 and 2008, the directory still described Peter Lewis Comensoli as a "supplementary priest of the Wollongong diocese" but it now also described him as "retired", instead of "on leave". In 2008 his postal address was care of the Wollongong diocesan office. His name disappeared from the Australian Catholic directories in 2010.

Update, 2018

As stated earlier in this article, this Father Peter Lewis Comensoli is not to be confused with another Catholic clergyman, Bishop Peter Andrew Comensoli who was appointed (in June 2018) to become the next archbishop of Melbourne, to replace the retiring Archbishop Denis Hart.

Peter Andrew Comensoli (born in 1964) was ordained in 1992 as a priest for the Wollongong diocese where he eventually became the chancellor, overseeing the administration of the diocese. He later became the bishop of Broken Bay (in Sydney's north).

In 2014, Bishop Peter Andrew Comensoli gave evidence (concerning Wollongong administrative matters) to Australia's Royal Commission into child sexual abuse).

He told the Royal Commission (in a written statement):

"Sometimes people erroneously think references to my cousin are references to me. That is why I have always referred to myself as Peter A. Comensoli to distinguish myself from Peter L. Comensoli."