A Sydney priest has been jailed for at least five years for child-sex crimes

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 17 July 2018

Broken Rites is doing further research about Father Robert James Hickman, who became a Catholic priest in Sydney in the 1970s. As well as working in parishes, he was also a chaplain for Sydney's deaf community. In Sydney's Parramatta District Court on 9 December 2016, Hickman (then aged 71) was jailed for a minimum of five years for child-sex offences.

Hickman faced 22 charges of various offences. Some of the offences were officially called "indecent assault" of a female under 16 years and some were officially called "sexual assault (category 3)" and "sexual assault (category 4)" of a female under 16 years.

Judge M. Sides sentenced Hickman to an aggregate term of imprisonment of 10 years, with parole possible after five years. As Hickman had been in custody since 28 April 2015, he would become eligible to apply for parole on 27 April 2020.

How the court case began

According to an announcement by the New South Wales police on 28 April 2015, the police investigation began in 2014 when police from the Blue Mountains Local Area Command and the New South Wales Sex Crimes Squad received information relating to the alleged assault of a young girl by this Sydney priest during a visit to the Blue Mountains region in 1986.

Detectives made inquiries into the 1986 matter and identified seven more children who had allegedly been sexually or indecently assaulted by this priest in Sydney, or during visits elsewhere in New South Wales, between 1975 and 1992.

On 28 April 2015, detectives arrested the 70-year-old man at a private house in Granville (in Sydney). He was taken to Parramatta Police Station, where he was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault and multiple counts of indecent assault.

The preliminary procedure was conducted by a magistrate in the Parramatta Local Court, and Hickman was eventually remanded in custody to await his sentencing by a judge in the District Court. The case number in the District Court was 2015/00126145.

Some background

Broken Rites has researched Fr Robert Hickman's career in some of the old printed editions of the annual Australian Catholic directories.

Around 1878, Father R. Hickman was listed as one of two priests at the St Joan of Arc parish in Sydney's Haberfield.

In 1979-88, he was a full-time chaplain for Sydney's deaf community.

In the early 1990s, he was the Parish Priest in charge of the Belmore parish in Sydney's inner-west. [According to a legal firm, the Sydney archdiocese has been forced to pay compensation to a female victim, code-named "Jane", who alleged that she was abused by Hickman in 1992 inside the Belmore presbytery.]

In 2000, Fr Robert Hickman was listed as a "chaplain" (residing at Sydney's Arncliffe parish).

After 2000, Fr. Robert Hickman was listed as "on leave" from parish work, care of the Sydney archdiocesan office. But someone told Broken Rites in 2014 that Hickman was still working at the Edmund Rice Centre in Homebush, where he was listed on the ERC website in 2014 as "a priest". After a complaint in 2014 by a friend of a victim, Hickman's name was removed from the ERC website.

A victim obtains compensation

A legal firm (Kelso's Lawyers) has acted for a client ("Jane"), forcing the Sydney Catholic archdiocese Church to pay compensation to Jane to settle her complaint that she was abused by Father Robert Hickman at this priest's residence in the Bellmore parish.

Here is Kelso's account of Jane's civil settlement:-

"Jane was the youngest of four children, born into a family devoted to the Catholic faith. Father Robert Hickman had been a close friend of Jane’s parents for many years. Jane and her siblings regarded Father Hickman as family, even calling him ‘Uncle Bob’. Jane suffers from a rare genetic condition, myoclonic dystonia, that is managed with various medications, some of which have sedative qualities. Jane and her parents would regularly travel from their home in Cooma to Sydney for appointments with a medical specialist. Quite often, the family would stay with Father Hickman at the Presbytery in Bellmore.

"On 23 January 1992 when Jane was 11, she and her mother travelled to Sydney to see her doctor. As usual, Jane and her mother arranged to stay with Father Hickman at the Presbytery. On this evening Jane’s mother had made plans to dine with her sister in the City. Jane was feeling unwell after seeing the doctor, so she stayed with Father Hickman while her mother went out. As she prepared for bed, Jane took her medications, which included Mogadon, a highly sedative drug with significant motor impairing qualities. Just before taking her medication Jane was called on by Hickman who had just finished showering. He requested that she apply ointment to his back. After handing her a jar he lay face down, naked on the bed directing Jane to apply the cream.

"Hickman instructed Jane to lie in his bed as he would carry her to her room after she fell asleep. Jane was anxious, but affected by the medication and although confused she obeyed Hickman’s orders. Jane woke with terror as Hickman climbed into the bed and began touching her. Jane desperately told Hickman to stop, but she was trapped because of her sedative medication. After sexually violating Jane, Hickman told her to keep silent, stating that people would not support her claims of his sexual abuse because “I’m a Catholic Priest and you’re just a kid, so they won’t believe you”...

"The consequences of the abuse were irreparable for Jane. The symptoms of her myoclonic dystonia became worse. In 1997, Jane was referred to the school counsellor after a series of unexplained crying fits. At age 18, Jane disclosed the abuse for the first time, initially to a trusted teacher and shortly afterwards to her parents. They believed their daughter wholeheartedly, dumbfounded by Hickman’s sexual abuse and betrayed by a friend they took into their trust. The following year, Jane and her father met with officials from St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Cooma to report the abuse. Representatives from the Archdiocese revealed that Hickman had admitted to the abuse and other victims had contacted the police.

"Jane was directed to the Church’s Towards Healing program. Father Brian Lucas and the Church agreed to cover the cost of counselling and contributed $1800 towards the costs of a pilgrimage Jane had planned. Father Lucas made it clear that 'this is by no means an admission of guilt and this should in no way be seen as compensation'. Nothing further was offered by the Church.

"More than a decade later, Jane and her family contacted the Archdiocese to gain some sort of compensation. Jane and her family met with the head of the Professional Standards Office, Michael Salmon. The Church once again offered to cover the cost of counselling for Jane, but nothing more.

"By this time, Jane had suffered for 17 years with chronic depression and anxiety. Her capacity to hold down a stable job was crippled by her mental health issues. In 2013, Jane registered her interest to tell her story to the Royal Commission. Just months later, Jane had a private session with a Commissioner. Around this time, Jane reached out to Kelsos to approach the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney for compensation.

"The Catholic Church were finally able to understand the enormity of child sexual abuse. Payment of compensation is just one aspect of their duty to victims. A heartfelt apology delivered in a timely manner is often more important.

"In October 2013 Jane, her father and Peter Kelso met with Monsignor John Usher and his legal representatives in Sydney. Monsignor Usher was visibly distressed by the Catholic Church’s inept response. Jane accepted $200,000 from the Church and an agreement that they pay for ongoing counselling costs and issue a written apology. Monsignor Usher also told Jane that her family would be flown to Sydney to receive a formal apology in person from Cardinal George Pell. The relief that came with the compensation and apology was significant for Jane. Although she received some semblance of justice, Jane still struggles with mental illness. Sadly, Jane attempted suicide in November 2013. She is now receiving regular psychological support to ensure that any problems are detected long before she feels so desperate again.

"In Jane’s case, the Catholic Church were finally able to understand the enormity of child sexual abuse. Payment of compensation is just one aspect of their duty to victims. A heartfelt apology delivered in a timely manner is often more important. The need to finance the victim’s ongoing counselling costs is so crucial and Kelsos are proud to have played a part in affording Jane the medical care that she deserves."

Broken Rites is doing further research about Father Robert Hickman.