GUILTY: An ex-priest in NSW is convicted by a jury on sex charges from 30 years ago. Now he is locked up

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated¬†17 November 2019

A former Catholic priest, James Joseph Cunneen, aged 60, has faced a court trial in New South Wales in October 2019, charged with sexual offences which were committed thirty years ago against a number of teenage boys while Father Cunneen was ministering in parishes near Sydney. On 30 October 2019, a jury returned a verdict of guilty regarding Cunneen's offences against six of those boys. Now Cunneen is in custody, awaiting his sentence.

James Cunneen was born in New Zealand. In 1979, he joined a Catholic religious order, the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor (OFM). This order has priests working in a small number of parishes and dioceses in Australia and New Zealand. After working with this religious order in Australia, Cunneen returned to New Zealand. By then, he had left the priesthood.

The 1994 edition of the directory of Australia's National Council of priests had "Father James Cunneen, OFM" listed as being "on leave", care of the Franciscans' Australian head office in Waverley, Sydney.

Cunneen's defence solicitor told a NSW court (at a preliminary hearing) that, after returning to New Zealand, Cunneen worked for the NZ Department of Education for the next three years. Since then, he has been running betting agencies across the North Island, the defence solicitor said.

Cunneen came to the attention of New South Wales police as a result of information given to Australia's child-abuse Royal Commission.

A police investigation was conducted by detectives from Rosehill Local Area Command of the NSW Police.

In November 2017, NSW Police extradited Cunneen back to Australia in custody. In Sydney's Central Local Court, police filed charges against Cunneen regarding some offences which he committed against some young males who were associated with the "Holy Name of Mary" Parish in Rydalmere in Sydney's north-west when Father Cunneen was a priest there in 1987-1989. Rydalmere is one of the 40 parishes within the Parramatta regional diocese (Parramatta is where the bishop is located).

Some of the victims had previously been pupils at a Marist Brothers high school (now named St Patrick's Marist College) at Dundas in the same region of Sydney, the court was told.

At the November 2017 procedure, Cunneen was granted bail pending the subsequent court proceedings. During 2018, a committal hearing (with a magistrate) was held in a Local Court. After the committal hearing, Cunneen was ordered to undergo a trial with a District Court judge.

The trial, lasting several weeks, was held in Sydney's Parramatta District Court during October 2019. As well as the victims from the Rydalmere parish, the trial also involved some victims from an earlier parish (St Andrew's at Marayong, in the Parramatta diocese) where Cunneen spent some time when he was beginning his priestly career.

Cunneen was charged regarding a total of eight young males. On 30 October 2019, the jury returned a guilty verdict regarding six of those victims. Cunneen was found guilty of 10 counts of indecent assault and sexual assault against the six boys

After the jury verdict, the judge ordered that Cunneen be removed from the court to be held in custody.

The judge will hold the sentence proceedings on 13 December 2019 in Sydney's Downing Centre District Court. The District Court's case number for Cunneen is 2015/00347275.

FOOTNOTE: On 31 October 2019, Sydney's Channel Nine news reported the Cunneen jury verdict during its 6.00pm bulletin. The bulletin included interviews with some of Cunneen's victims, with their faces obscured (Australian courts generally prohibit the media from revealing the names and identity of sex-abuse victims). The bulletin also included some footage of Cunneen, walking from a court after his preliminary hearing. Now he is locked up.