The church protected Father Vic Rubeo but Broken Rites has exposed this cover-up

By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 8 January 2019)

Research by Broken Rites has revealed how the Catholic Church harboured this abusive priest, Father Victor Gabriel Rubeo, for three decades while he committed child-sex crimes in the Melbourne archdiocese. His victims included girls and boys. Broken Rites first exposed Rubeo in the 1990s, prompting some more of Rubeo's victims to contact Broken Rites. Rubeo (pronounced "roo-BAY-oh") was born in 1933 and was ordained as a priest in 1959; he died in 2011.

Rubeo's victims included two twin boys (Tony and Will Hersbach) in one of his earliest parishes (in Melbourne in the 1960s). In 1996 he pleaded guilty in court after these two victims finally spoke to police. On 28 October 2011, Rubeo appeared in court again, charged with 30 additional offences (in the 1960s) against the same two boys. He was ordered to re-appear on 16 December 2011 for a full hearing but he died a few hours before his next scheduled court appearance, aged 78.

The two boys in these court proceedings (Tony and Will Hersbach) were born about 1952. Their parents were Dutch working-class migrants. Their father had been badly affected by World War 2 and he had an alcohol problem. Their mother was missing her relatives in the Netherlands.

In the 1960s Tony and Will lived at Laverton, in Melbourne's outer south-west. They were in Grade 5 at St Mary's Catholic primary school, Altona. Fr Rubeo visited their school, seeking to recruit altar boys. Tony and Will volunteered.

Rubeo "befriended" the twins' parents and became a frequent visitor to the family home, helping the twins with their schoolwork.

According to a prosecution file which was compiled for the 2011 court proceedings, Rubeo's offences allegedly began when Tony and Will were aged 11 or 12 (in Grade 6 at school) and became more frequent when the boys were 13 to 15. At the time, neither of the brothers knew that the other was being abused.

Rubeo gathered a large following of boys, especially altar boys. He encouraged them to visit his parish house, where he would help them with their schoolwork. Any boy was welcome to stay overnight.

Parents trusted Rubeo. They were confident that their children were safe while in the custody of a Catholic priest.

Rubeo entertained Tony and Will and other boys at restaurants and gave them presents. He would take one or more boys on a trip — for example, or to Adelaide, or to a farm in southern New South Wales, or to Tasmania or to Fiji.

Rubeo would allow a boy to drink alcohol.

In separate police interviews, Tony and Will told how Rubeo introduced each of these two boys to "sex". He did this in secret, to one boy at a time, at the priest's house. This secrecy is the reason why neither Tony nor his brother knew that each other was being abused by Rubeo.

In his abuse of Tony or Will, Rubeo would invasively massage the boy's naked genitals and he would instruct the boy to do the same thing to Rubeo's naked genitals.

This meant that the boy's first experience of "sex" was with another male — a Catholic priest.

Neither Tony nor Will was able to tell their "devout Catholic parents" about Rubeo's behaviour because the boys expected that their Catholic parents would not believe negative things about a Catholic priest (especially about the popular Father Rubeo).

After Tony and Will reached adulthood, their parents continued to be friends of Rubeo — and so did Tony and his brother, even after Rubeo moved to other parishes.

In their adult years, both Tony and Will experienced personal difficulties. Each eventually realised that the abuse by a Catholic priest (plus the hypocrisy of the church's pious public image) disrupted their adolescent development and damaged their adult life. By the time they realised the full extent of the damage, Tony and Will were into their thirties and forties.

And it was it was only in their mature years that Tony and Will revealed to each other that each had been abused by Rubeo.

The cover-up

Although Rubeo's sexual abuse of Tony and Will was confined to their teenage years, the church cover-up culture maintained its psychological hold over the twins until they were past the age of 40.

By early 1994, when Tony and Will were aged 42, various Australian priests and religious Brothers were facing court on child-sex charges (and Broken Rites was involved in many of these cases). Church sexual abuse was becoming a frequent topic in the Australian media. The public was learning that many church victims suffered long-term damage not only from the abusive incidents but also from the church's cover-up.

Aged 42, Tony and Will were still feeling the damage that had been caused to them by Rubeo's status as a Catholic priest. In August 1994, Tony finally reported his abuse to the Vicar-General of the Melbourne archdiocese, Monsignor Gerald Cudmore. (The vicar-general was the archdiocese's chief administrator — that is, a deputy to the archbishop.) Cudmore asked Rubeo about the abuse, and Rubeo admitted it.

The church took no disciplinary action against Rubeo, thereby continuing the cover-up. The church concealed Rubeo's crimes from the police. And Tony and Will were still feeling too intimidated by the church culture to contact the police themselves.

The church allowed Rubeo to continue ministering at his then parish (St Joseph's, Boronia, in Melbourne's east). The Boronia families were kept unaware that their parish priest had admitted being a child-molester.

It seemed that Father Rubeo (then aged 61) could continue ministering in the Melbourne archdiocese indefinitely (many Catholic priests continue ministering until the age of 75).

How the cover-up ended

Meanwhile, around this time, a woman contacted the Melbourne archdiocese, complaining that Father Victor Rubeo had committed a serious sexual assault against her in the Doveton parish in the early 1980s. But the archdiocese took no action. The woman then contacted Broken Rites, which advised her to have a chat with investigators at the Sexual Offences and Child-abuse unit of the Victoria Police. Therefore, in 1996 (while he was still ministering at the Boronia parish) Rubeo was interviewed by detectives from the Victoria Police sexual crimes squad.

Thus, 37 years after he was ordained, Father Vic Rubeo finally came to police attention.

In his 1996 police interview, Rubeo contested the woman's complaint (her serious complaint, if proven, could have earned him a jail sentence). However, he admitted to detectives that he had committed "a few" less serious offences 30 years previously against boys while at the Laverton parish. The detectives located Tony and Will, who each described Rubeo's 1960s behaviour. In mid-1996 the prosecutors decided to proceed against Rubeo in relation to a couple of the offences against the Laverton boys, rather than the more serious assault of the Doveton woman. The court charges were confined to a couple of selected incidents — one indecent assault (that is, indecent touching) on Tony and one on Will.

The police issued Rubeo with a summons to appear at Melbourne's Ringwood Magistrates Court on 8 October 1996.

Guilty plea in 1996

Meanwhile, on 22 August 1996, while awaiting his court appearance, Fr Vic Rubeo resigned from his Boronia parish. This was six weeks before the scheduled court date. Parishioners were not told that he was facing criminal charges.

In court on 8 October 1996, Rubeo pleaded guilty regarding both Tony and Will. As the court was told of only two offences (and as this small number could be interpreted as merely "isolated" incidents), the 1996 magistrate imposed a lenient sentence on Rubeo — just a two-year good-behaviour bond. A few days later, Broken Rites checked with the court office and obtained verification of the sentence.

Even after his October 1996 guilty plea, the Melbourne church authorities did not tell Rubeo's current or previous parishioners about the matter. Nor did the church tell parents at schools where Rubeo had visited as a chaplain. The court case was evidently going to be kept as a secret.

A Melbourne priest told Broken Rites in early 1997: "Rubeo's resignation was only from his parish, not from the priesthood. He hopes to get another parish after serving out his good-behaviour bond period — but it would be difficult for him to get a new parish if the public learns about his court case. As yet [in early 1997] hardly anybody knows about it."

The conviction did not remain a secret for long. In March 1997, the Melbourne Sunday Herald Sun asked Broken Rites for information about any clergy-abuse court cases in the Melbourne archdiocese. Broken Rites cited the example of Rubeo's guilty plea. The journalist verified this information at the court office and then mentioned the Rubeo case in an article published on 23 March 1997. Thus, Rubeo's various parishes heard for the first time about his court appearance and the guilty plea. Thus, Broken Rites ended the church's cover-up of Rubeo.

On the very next day, 24 March 1997, the matter was being discussed by parents as they delivered their children to Catholic schools where Rubeo had been known as a chaplain. Two parish primary schools (St Joseph's at Boronia and St Bernadette's at The Basin) issued newsletters, informing parents about the court case.

The court case then became news in the local suburban newspaper in the Boronia area, the Knox News on 8 April 1997. In this newspaper, the Catholic Education Office defended the schools' delay in advising parents, claiming that the school principals were unaware until the newspaper item appeared. Catholic Education Office spokeswoman Maria Kirkwood declined to explain why the church did not advise the principals earlier.

The revelation in the two newspapers made it impossible for Rubeo to be re-instated in a new parish, even after his two-year good-behaviour bond, which was due to expire in October 1998.

Retirement

At the time of his resignation from the Boronia parish in August 1996, Rubeo was aged 63. He was entitled to receive the normal retirement benefits which the archdiocesan superannuation fund provides for retired priests. In addition, he would be able to apply for the Australian Government's age-pension when he reached 65 in January 1998.

Rubeo moved into a house at Portarlington, a seaside town, 107 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, where he spent his retirement years.

Apology

After Rubeo's guilty plea, the Melbourne archdiocese was forced to give a written apology to Tony and to Will. The archbishop of Melbourne wrote on 17 November 1997, telling each of them:

"On behalf of the Catholic Church and personally, I apologise to you and to those around you for the wrongs and hurt that you have suffered at the hands of Father Rubeo."

However, there was no apology for the church's on-going cover-up.

The Melbourne archdiocese also gave Tony and Will a very small payment each, as a settlement, to ensure that the church is free from all legal liability. This payout was tiny when compared with the long-term damage that had been done to the victims' lives. As in all Catholic Church out-of-court settlements, this payment was on condition that each victim would sign away his right to take legal action against the archdiocese for a proper amount of damages. This is a cost-effective way of protecting the church's assets.

More charges in 2011

In 2011, when Tony and Will were nearing the age of 60, they were still feeling hurt by how their lives had been damaged by the church's harbouring of Rubeo. They regretted that only a couple of Rubeo's offences had been mentioned in the 1996 court hearing. And they were dissatisfied by how the church authorities had been silent about Rubeo.

In 2011 Tony and Will each made a further written statement for specialist police in the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (SOCA) unit at the Knox Police Complex in Melbourne's east. They described their 1960s experiences in full. Officers from the Knox SOCA unit went to Rubeo's Portarlington house to interview him.

Rubeo consulted lawyers. He protested that the 2011 charges were unnecessary because he had already admitted a couple of offences against Tony and Will in the 1996 proceedings. He realised that the larger number of charges in 2011 would indicate that Tony and Will were each abused on more than one occasion.

Furthermore, Rubeo was alarmed that, whereas the charges in 1996 were for plain "indecent assault", many of the charges in 2011 (but based on the laws that operated in the 1960s) were in a more serious category — "indecent assault of a male", which could result in a longer jail sentence than plain generic "indecent assault".

On 28 October 2011, Rubeo appeared in the Melbourne Magistrates Court for a "filing" hearing. This was a procedural event, so that the court could fix a date for a detailed hearing.

Rubeo indicated that he intended to plead "not guilty". The court then scheduled a contested hearing (called a "committal" hearing) for 16 December 2011.

However, shortly before the December 16 hearing, Rubeo's lawyers told the prosecutors that Rubeo would be unable to attend the hearing because of health problems. Therefore the prosecutors intended to ask the December 16 hearing for a re-scheduled date in 2012.

Death

On the morning of 16 December 2011, the court was told that Rubeo had died. He was nearly 79 years old.

Prosecutors obtained a copy of his death certificate, which said that the death appeared to be from natural causes.

The court proceedings were cancelled

No death notice for Victor Rubeo appeared in Victorian newspapers and the archdiocese refused to tell anyone about when and where the funeral was to be held. However, Broken Rites has been told that the funeral service was held at St Paul's church in Coburg, in Melbourne's north. A number of Melbourne priests were on the altar, "celebrating" Rubeo's life.

Broken Rites has ascertained that, according to the records of Melbourne's Fawkner Cemetery, Victor Rubeo was buried there on 20 December 2011.

Rubeo also abused the next generation

One of the above victims, Tony Hersbach, has a son named Paul - and Paul Hersbach has revealed that he too was abused by Rubeo. Paul has arranged to give evidence (in August 2014) to Australia's national Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Paul, aged 37 in 2014, says that he suffered a decade of abuse by Rubeo from the age of 10. The priest lived in the family home, accompanied them on holidays and even officiated at Paul's parents’ wedding and the baptism of four children — all the while perpetrating years of abuse.

Paul says he triumphed over his attacker by breaking the cycle of abuse.

“The cycle could have continued and it didn’t,” he says. “I have succeeded in some way and recovered in some way. It has taken me over 15 years of hard work to get to that point.”

“The church dealt with me through the Melbourne Response, which up until now has not been publicly scrutinised. The Royal Commission is a fantastic way for that scrutiny to occur.’’

[Broken Rites has a policy of not revealing the names of victims. However, Paul Hersbach and his father Tony have openly identified themselves in the Australian media in their efforts to obtain justice for all church victims. Therefore, this article gives the surname of the Hersbach family. However, normally, Broken Rites will give other church victims a pseudonym to protect their privacy.]

The priest's background

Broken Rites has ascertained that Victor Gabriel Rubeo was born in Australia on 23 January 1933. He studied for the priesthood at the Melbourne Catholic seminary, where at one stage (according to his police interview) his fellow students included Gerald Francis Ridsdale.

(Father Ridsdale, who was a year younger than Rubeo, eventually received lengthy jail sentences for child sexual crimes.)

Rubeo was ordained as a priest of the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese in 1959, aged 26, and his long career covered various parishes.

Broken Rites has checked Rubeo's placements in the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory. In the early 1960s, Rubeo was based at St Mary's parish, Altona, in Melbourne's west, and his work there included being a chaplain at local Catholic schools.

From 1962 to 1970 he ministered at Laverton, in Melbourne's south-west (situated on the highway to Geelong). The Laverton parish (called St Martin de Porres) was becoming one of the fastest growing perishes in the Melbourne archdiocese. St Martin's parish eventually absorbed the church of Queen of Peace at Altona Meadows.

From 1962 to 1964 at Laverton, Rubeo lived in a temporary presbytery. From 1965 to 1988 he lived in a private house in a Laverton residential street (and some of Rubeo's abuse of Tony or Will occurred in this private house). In 1968 Rubeo moved into a newly-built Laverton presbytery, where he remained until 1972 when he transferred to other Melbourne parishes. These included:

  • Doveton (in Melbourne's outer south-east) in the late 1970s and early 1980s;
    Reservoir and Preston East (in Melbourne's north) in the late 1980s and early 1990s; and
    Boronia (in Melbourne's east) in the mid-1990s.

He also served briefly as a relieving priest at St Finbar's parish, Brighton East (in Melbourne's south), and possibly did similar stints elsewhere.

Footnote

Fr Vic Rubeo was not the only "problem priest" in his various parishes.

After his period at Laverton, he was succeeded there (in the 1970s and 1980s) by Fr Gerard Fitzgerald, who was investigated by police in the 1960s for alleged child-sex offences at the Coburg parish in Melbourne's north.

When Rubeo went to the Reservoir parish (in Melbourne's north), he had been preceded there by a serial child-abuser, Fr Michael Glennon, who ended up in jail.

Other child-sex offenders from the Melbourne archdiocese who spent time at the Doveton parish (before Rubeo went there) included:
Fr Wilfred Baker;
Fr Peter Searson; and
Fr Thomas O'Keeffe.

Broken Rites is continuing its research on all these priests (including Father Victor Gabriel Rubeo) with special attention to the church's cover-up.

Some aspects of the Rubeo case (plus an interview with Tony) were featured in a full-page article in The Age newspaper, Melbourne, on 6 June 2012 (page 15), but it was Broken Rites (in March 1997) which first revealed the church's cover-up of Father Victor Gabriel Rubeo.

It is worth noting that, in 1942 (when he was aged nine), Victor Rubeo was a pupil at St Bede's College (in Melbourne's Mentone), where boys were being abused by the paedophile Brother Fintan Dwyer (a De La Salle Brother). Was this where Victor Rubeo first absorbed the culture of church sexual abuse and cover-up? To see a background article about Brother Fintan Dwyer, click HERE.