How Father John Farrell's crimes (and the church's cover-up) were exposed in court

By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 2 November 2018)

This Broken Rites article summarises the court proceedings against John Joseph Farrell (also known as "Father F"). Father Farrell targeted numerous children (mostly boys, plus some girls) in northern New South Wales in the 1980s (and later in western Sydney until 1992). On 2 May 2016 he was sentenced to a minimum of 18 years jail for 62 of his crimes, committed against 12 of his victims. A further 17 incidents were taken into account at sentencing, making a total of 79 incidents. On 2 November 2018, after more of his victims contacted the police, a judge sentenced Farrell to more time in jail regarding these additional victims.

In the 2016 court case, John Joseph Farrell (born in 1953) was charged regarding offences which occurred while he was a priest based in the NSW towns of Armidale, Tamworth and Moree in the 1980s.

NSW Police sex crime squad detectives began investigating Farrell in mid-2012. Gradually, as victims began contacting the police, the detectives charged Farrell regarding an increasing number of incidents, involving an increasing number of victims. By late 2015, he had pleaded "Guilty" to most of the charges and was therefore automatically convicted for these incidents. He contested the remaining incidents with a plea of "Not Guilty" on those incidents, thus necessitating a jury trial on those incidents. In February 2016, the jury found Farrell guilty on ten of the incidents. On 8 April 2016, Judge Peter Zahra began holding pre-sentence procedures. On 2 May 2016, Judge Zahra sentenced Farrell to a long jail term for 62 charges, including those in the "Guilty" plea and those in the jury trial.

These 12 victims were not the only children who were targeted by Farrell. These 12 are merely those who spoke to NSW detectives. Other possible victims have remained silent, thus helping Farrell.

And these 62 incidents were not the only charges originally laid by the police. During negotiations between Farrell's defence lawyer and the Office of Public Prosecutions, some additional incidents were dropped (or were downgraded in seriousness) in order to bring the court proceedings to a conclusion.

Farrell has been jailed for only these 12 victims and 62 incidents. Contrary to what some people might think, he is not being jailed for being a paedophile. The length of Farrell's jail term was determined by what he did to these 12 victims, not to any victims who have remained silent.

Any silent victims may still obtain justice if they contact the detectives in the NSW sex crimes unit at Parramatta, Sydney.

Victims' impact statements

In a pre-sentence hearing on 8 April 2016, each of the 12 victims had the right to submit an impact statement, informing Judge Zahra about how Farrell's crimes (and the church's response) affected the victim's later life. Six victims (four males and two females) chose to do so. The purpose of the impact statements is to help the judge when he is finalising the length of Farrell's jail term.

Farrell was present in court, as a prisoner in the custody of a police officer, to hear the victim impact statements. He kept his head down, with his back to some victims (and their families) who were, also, in the court. A Broken Rites researcher was present, sitting with the victims and their families.

Each of the male victims had his impact statement read out aloud to the court, on his behalf, by a member of his family.

  • One male victim wrote that he had enjoyed a happy childhood until the age of 11 but his life changed when he met Farrell. He said the abuse was compounded by the fact that when he reported what happened to him, he was not believed. He said Farrell operated “with complete immunity as an ongoing representative of, and with the protection and facilitation from, the Australian Catholic Church.” He said: “In fact, the church denied the allegations against Farrell, protected Farrell ... and stated the allegations were completely preposterous and outright lies. I was made to feel as if it was all my fault. Meanwhile, I had lost my innocence, my youth.” This victim wrote: "I felt completely abandoned by the institution I had put so much faith in." This victim said he began drinking during his time with Farrell. He developed chronic alcoholism, never engaged in study or long-term employment and has had 20 different homes in the past 25 years.
  • A second male victim listed the effects: “secrecy, fear of intimacy, family feeling betrayed after inviting a priest into their home, an underlying feeling of great anxiety and loss”.
  • A third wrote that, since the abuse and the cover-up, he has suffered depression and anxiety and has been unable to sustain proper relationships with others.
  • A fourth man wrote that he tried to tell those in the church what was happening when he was a child, but nothing was done. “I do not know how to put a price on innocence but that is what John Joseph Farrell took from me in the cellar of the church and again at the altar,” his statement said.

Two of the female victims had their impact statement handed directly to the judge (and not read out in court).

  • One female wrote that she was sexually assaulted by Farrell from the age of 10. The traumatising sexual abuse had continued throughout her teenage years. "I naively assumed that God must have been OK with it," she wrote.
  • Another female said she was abused by Farrell from a similar age and would often try to escape when he would visit her family home. She would run to a friend's house 500 metres up the road, which led to her family becoming angry with her for being anti-social, she said in her victim impact statement. "I kept the abuse quiet from my family as I was afraid of their reaction," she wrote. Many years have passed since the abuse, but the victim said it had had a profound and detrimental effect on her life, particularly relationships. She said she had been robbed of her dream of having a husband and child.

After this pre-sentence hearing, John Joseph Farrell was removed from the court and was taken back to the remand prison to await his sentencing on 2 May 2016.


John Joseph Farrell was born on 4 July 1953 in Armidale (470 kilometres north of Sydney), in a Catholic family belonging to the cathedral parish in that city. He grew up closely associated with priests. In the late 1970s he trained for the priesthood, and in 1981 he became ordained as a priest of the Armidale diocese in north-western New South Wales.

The Armidale diocese is one of the eleven Catholic dioceses into which the state of New South Wales is divided. The Armidale diocese includes two dozen parishes, covering an extensive region around the New England Highway — including towns such as Tamworth (in the south of the diocese) and Moree, Narrabri and Inverell (in the north-west). This diocese extends as far north as the Queensland border.

The town of Armidale is merely where the bishop and the cathedral are situated (and it is also the town where Farrell was living, as a private citizen, after he ceased working in parishes some years ago).

Farrell's parish appointments

According to research by Broken Rites, John Joseph Farrell studied for the Catholic priesthood in the late 1970s (sponsored by the Armidale Diocese). He was ordained for the Armidale Diocese at the Armidale cathedral on 21 September 1981. His main parish placements were: St Edward's parish, Tamworth South (as a deacon, early 1981); St Francis Xavier parish, Moree (1981 to mid-1984); and St Nicholas’s parish, Tamworth (1985-87). In 1987-88 he lived at the Armidale residence of Bishop Henry Kennedy. In 1989 he was transferred, on loan, to the Diocese of Parramatta in Sydney's west, where his parishes were: St Madeleine’s, Kenthurst (until November 1990); and St Margaret Mary’s, Merrylands (until 1 July 1992). He had no subsequent parish appointments but officially he continued to be a priest (without a parish) for some years until the church authorities feared that the Farrell matter was becoming public.

How the case began

In July 2012, the NSW Police Sex Crimes Squad established a special team of detectives (named Strike Force Glenroe, based at NSW Police headquarters in Sydney's Parramatta) to investigate the allegations concerning John Joseph Farrell.

In October 2012, police arrested Farrell at his home in Armidale. He was taken to Armidale Local Court, where prosecutors filed the first batch of charges — the first step in what would be a long, complex process.

Farrell's name suppressed

Beginning in the October 2012, the Armidale magistrates ruled that, until further notice, the media must not publish the ex-priest's name. The prosecutor objected to this non-publication order (and objected again, several times, in later hearings, but without success). The prosecutors believed that more Farrell victims would contact the police if his name was published.

The ex-priest's defence lawyer, on the other hand, argued that publication of the ex-priest's name would prejudice a fair trial if the matter eventually went to a jury (or to a series of juries). This lawyer also raised concerns for the safety of his client.

The magistrates kept the ex-priest's name suppressed for the next two and a half years during the Local Court processes. [The suppression order was finally lifted by a judge in early 2016 after a jury trial was finished.]

During this name-suppression period, there were about two dozen occasions when various parts of the Farrell case were listed in court for a particular procedure. On the court's daily schedule, this defendant's name would be listed simply as "JF". And people sometimes spoke of him as "Father F". The media referred to the defendant only as "the former priest" or "the ex-priest".

[Normally the name of any sex-abuse victim is suppressed automatically and permanently. These victims are always assured of complete privacy by the police and the courts.]

First charges (about girls)

The first charges, filed in Armidale Local Court on 18 October 2012, involved 23 offences relating to three girls. The charges included indecent assault, acts of indecency and sexual intercourse without consent, allegedly committed between 1979 and 1988 when the girls were aged between 5 and 18 years.

At the 18 October 2012 hearing, a magistrate rejected the ex-priest's bail application and ordered him to remain in custody until the case would come up for mention again later in 2012. Three weeks later, on 7 November 2012, in Armidale Local Court, the ex-priest appeared via audio visual link from the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre in Silverwater, applying for bail. He offered his Armidale house, valued at $230,000, as a surety, as well as $10,000 cash. His brother and sister would contribute $5000 each in order for bail to be granted.

The magistrate granted bail with strict conditions after determining that the accused would spend too much time in custody while waiting for a trial, as police investigations were continuing.

Next charges (about altar boys)

The ex-priest appeared in Armidale Local Court again on 23 January 2013, when he was charged with 35 offences, which were allegedly committed against six boys, aged 11 and 12, between 1981 and 1984, when these victims were altar-boys at the Moree parish . The charges included: nine counts of sexual assault; 25 counts of indecent assault; and one count of common assault.

More charges in 2013

At a hearing in the same court on 8 May 2013, the ex-priest was charged with an additional 64 offences, allegedly committed against three more victims. The new charges related to alleged assaults against one boy and two girls, aged from nine to 19, between 1982 and 1985 in Moree, Narrabri, Inverell and Armidale.

The fresh charges included 11 counts of sexual intercourse without consent, 52 counts of indecent assault and one count of committing an act of indecency. The new offences brought the total number of charges at this stage to 124, relating to seven boys and five girls.

On 17 July 2013, the ex-priest again appeared in the same court, where 13 charges were filed relating to alleged assaults against a boy, aged 12 to 14, between 1981 and 1984. The charges included nine counts of sexual intercourse without consent and four counts of indecent assault.

In court on 4 September 2013, Magistrate Karen Stafford decided to uphold the non-publication order on the grounds that lifting the gag “would be an objectively magnified risk” to the ex-priest's personal safety. She also extended the order to all Australian states and territories.

Of the ex-priest's charges at this stage, 74 related to the alleged sexual abuse of three girls and six altar boys during the 1970s and 1980s and 64 related to the alleged abuse of a further two girls and one altar boy in the early 1980s.

A further charge related to the incorrect storage of a firearm. This made a total of 139 charges at this stage.

Negotiations regarding the charges

When the matter came up for mention again (for the 13th time) in Armidale Local Court on 9 April 2014, Crown Prosecutor Peter Woods told the court that substantial negotiations had been going on between the Office of Public Prosecutions and the defence lawyers for the past 18 months, and the two sides had reached agreement on some of the charges.

Mr Woods said the brief of evidence against the accused man spans 11 volumes. He said: “There are diaries and so forth, investigator statements ... statements from other people around at the church in Moree.”

Guilty plea on some charges

During 2014, the prosecution selected 76 charges for the eventual proceedings, with the remaining charges being discarded.

On 7 August 2014, the ex-priest pleaded guilty to 45 charges but not to 31 other charges.

After holding a preliminary ("committal") hearing on the contested charges, a magistrate ruled that there was sufficient evidence for the ex-priest to be convicted by a jury on these charges. The ex-priest was ordered to stand trial (with a judge) in the NSW District Court in Sydney (in early 2016) on those charges.

Locked up

Until June 2015, Local Court magistrates had been allowing the ex-priest to be on bail. During the lengthy Local Court proceedings, he was residing at an address in Harden (near Cootamundra, in south-western New South Wales). It is not known whether this was a private house or a church property such as St Clement’s Retreat and Conference Centre (conducted by the Redemptorist religious order).

In July 2015, the Director of Public Prosecutions successfully applied to the NSW Supreme Court to have the ex-priest's bail revoked. Thus, he was placed behind bars to await his forthcoming trial in the Sydney District Court.

Start of the 2016 trial

A jury trial began in the Sydney District Court on 2 February 2016 regarding the contested charges. The ex-priest was being tried for 17 offences allegedly committed against three boys, aged 11 and 12, between 1980 and 1984. Eleven of the 17 charges related to one of these three boys.

In his opening to the ex-priest's trial in the Downing Centre District Court, Crown prosecutor Bryan Rowe outlined a series of alleged incidents in which the accused groped, molested, raped or forced oral sex on the boys. Farrell contested all of these charges.

One of the boys was the victim of 11 separate offences, including repeated indecent assaults during trips to a local swimming pool.

During one excursion, the priest allegedly lured the boy back to the presbytery for an ice-cream. But when they got there, the priest allegedly took the boy into his bedroom, forced him face down onto the bed and anally raped him.

Mr Rowe said that on another occasion the priest bent one of his other young victims over the altar of the church and raped him.

A number of the other alleged indecent assaults against the victims took place in the priest's car and in church itself, including in a cellar under the altar or the sacristy.

Mr Rowe then set out some of the 40 other sex abuse incidents against six victims, which the accused has admitted to, telling the jury that these amounted to "tendency evidence" against him.

Guilty verdict, February 2016

After two-and-a-half days of deliberations, the 12-member jury found Farrell guilty on 10 counts and not guilty on seven other charges.

Judge Zahra withdrew the non-publication order on Farrell's name. The name "John Joseph Farrell" then appeared in reports in newspapers, including in towns such as Armidale, Tamworth and Moree.

On 8 April 2016 Judge Zahra heard the victims' impact statements about how Farrell's crimes (and the church's cover-up) had affected their later lives.

Jailed in May 2016

Farrell, who had been in custody for nearly eight months, was sentenced by Judge Zahra on 2 May 2016. As well as the 62 historical sexual crimes against children, a further 17 offences were taken into account when Farrell was given a total sentence of 29 years, with a non-parole period of 18 years. Farrell would not leave prison until 2033 at the earliest.

Jailed again in November 2018

In early 2018, John Joseph Farrell faced a jury trial in Sydney's Downing Centre District Court regarding some additional victims from the 1980s.

A jury found him guilty of offences against three more altar boys between November 1981 and December 1983 at Moree and Narrabri when he was a priest working primarily at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Moree.

On 2 November 2018, Farrell (aged 65) was sentenced by Judge Stephen Norrish for these additional crimes.

"The victims in each instance were school children who attended the local parish school at Moree, St Philomena's, and who were also altar boys at the church where the prisoner worked as a deacon then a priest," said Judge Norrish.

For these additional crimes, the judge jailed Farrell for nine years six months with a non-parole period of five years six months. The 2018 jail sentence will overlap somewhat with the 2016 sentence. This means that Farrell will now be eligible for parole in December 2036, when he will be 81.

As well as taking into account the terrible harm done to the three victims, Judge Norrish noted the enormous impact upon the community.

"Even to 'non-Catholic' observers the character and extent of his offending whilst in Moree beggars belief," the judge said.

The church's cover-up

  • To see a full Broken Rites article about Father John Joseph Farrell's background (plus the church's cover-up), click HERE.