First cover-up prosecution in Australia

By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 2 October 2012

In August 2012, in what is believed to be the first such case in Australia, the former vicar-general of a Catholic diocese was charged with failing to report the alleged child-sex crimes of another priest.

Father Thomas Brennan, 74, from the Maitland-Newcastle diocese (north of Sydney), was charged on 30 August 2012 with multiple offences.

  • The charges included two counts of "misprision of a felony" (that is, failing to disclose a serious crime) relating to child-sex crimes allegedly committed by another priest (Father "XYZ"), against two boys at St Pius X Catholic High School in Adamstown, Newcastle, New South Wales, in the late 1970s. Father Tom Brennan was then the school principal. (For legal reasons, the media is not allowed at present to publish the name of Father "XYZ".)
  • Police allege that, after two boys reported being sexually assaulted by Father "XYZ", Father Thomas Brennan caned the boys as punishment for revealing the assaults.
  • In the August 2012 case, the police also charged Father Brennan with 10 counts of sexually assaulting a young male in the early 1980s while Brennan was parish priest at Waratah, in the Newcastle area.

Later in his career, Father Tom Brennan served (from 2005 to 2008) as vicar-general (that is, chief administrator under the bishop) of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.

In August 2008, the Newcastle Herald quoted the then bishop, Most Reverend Michael Malone, as describing Father Tom Brennan as "my right-hand man".

"(He) is very close to me. He's the bishop when I'm away."

(There is no suggestion that Bishop Malone knew about the abuse claims against Father Brennan at this time.)

Fr Tom Brennan was working as a parish priest in the Lake Macquarie area until as recently as 2011, when he retired.

This is evidently the first time an Australian Catholic clergyman has been charged for failing to report the alleged child sex offences of another priest to police or other civil authorities.

The charge of "misprision of a felony" was replaced in the NSW Crimes Act in 1990 by a package of concealing serious crimes offences under section 316.

Father Brennan was charged with the "misprision" offences because the allegations relate to the late 1970s.

The charges were laid by Detective Sergeant Kristi Faber, of Lake Macquarie Detectives, Charlestown, New South Wales.

Police gave Father Thomas Brennan an order to appear in a magistrate's court at Newcastle on 25 September 2012 to begin the prosecution proceedings. However, when this September 25 hearing began, the court was told that Brennan was "too ill" to appear in court. The magistrate then re-listed the case for a different date.

On Sunday 30 September 2012 (five days after his "no-show"), Brennan died. His death was reported in the news media next day, 1 October 2012.

The Brennan case had been re-scheduled for a hearing on 31 October 2012. However, as the defendant is dead, the whole Brennan case is automatically cancelled.

Thus, the Catholic Church in Australia has been saved from what would have been an embarrassing public exposure about the church's cover-up of sex-abuse crimes.

A previous case

The 2012 case was not the first time that Fr Tom Brennan had been in trouble regarding cover-up allegations. In 2009 he was convicted for having made a false statement to police, claiming that he had not known about the crimes of Fr "XYZ". In fact, however, police proved that victims of Father XYZ had indeed reported Father XYZ's crimes to Father Brennan.

The 2012 charge (concealing the crimes of Father "XYZ") was more serious than the 2009 charge ("merely" making a false statement). The penalty for the 2012 charge would have been more severe than the 2009 penalty — and the 2012 case would have been much more embarrassing for the church.

Future cases

There is still scope for Australian police to charge other Catholic Church leaders with concealing various church-related crimes. There is now an increasing public awareness of the church's tradition of covering up its crimes.