A guilty priest dies while waiting to be sentenced, but the jury's guilty verdict still stands

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 15 February 2020

Father James Joseph Cunneen committed sexual crimes against boys in two parishes of the Parramatta Catholic Diocese (in Sydney's western suburbs) in the 1980s. His priestly status gave him access to young people. Prosecutors regard Cunneen's crimes as serious. In 2019, a jury found him guilty regarding six of his victims (four from one parish and two from an earlier parish). Cunneen, aged 60, was remanded in custody to await a pre-sentence hearing (scheduled for 14 February 2020) when the judge would hear submissions about what kind of sentence should be imposed. Each victim intended to tell the court (at the pre-sentence hearing) how these church-crimes had impacted this victim's life. But on 28 December 2019 Cunneen died in hospital as the result of a heart condition; and evidently his body was cremated. Therefore, when the case came up in court on 14 February 2020, the judge was unable to sentence Cunneen; and now the judge will seek a formal statement from police confirming that Cunneen is dead. Meanwhile, the jury's guilty verdict still stands.

James Cunneen was born in New Zealand. In 1979, according to Broken Rites research, 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 order in Australia, Cunneen returned to New Zealand. By then, he had left the priesthood.

Broken Rites has checked the 1994 edition of the directory of Australia's National Council of priests. This 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 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, the prosecutor told the court these were "serious sexual offences that carry terms of imprisonment from two to eight years".

"All of the victims knew the defendant and were part of the church where he was the priest," the prosecutor said. "These were predatory offences committed against people who were vulnerable and of a young age … The defendant was in a position of trust and authority."

The prosecutor opposed bail but the magistrate granted bail to Cunneen 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 to await his sentencing.

At first, the pre-sentencing procedure was scheduled for 13 December 2019, but was postponed to 14 February 2020 (in Sydney's Downing Centre District Court). In this procedure, the judge would hear submissions from the prosecutors and the defence lawyer about what kind of sentence Cunneen should receive. Also, each victim would have an opportunity to tell the court (orally or in writing) how these church-crimes had affected this victim's life.

On Saturday 27 December 2019 Cunneen died in Blacktown Hospital as the result of a heart condition. The New South Wales police notified the victims.

With Cunneen dead, it is no longer possible for the judge to sentence Cunneen. But, officially, Cunneen is still guilty.

After the death, one of Cunneen's victims (we will call him "Patrick") told Broken Rites:

"I was looking forward to the pre-sentence hearing, so that I would be able to stand up in Cunneen's presence to tell the court how this priest's abuse damaged me.

"I am gutted that I have lost this opportunity. I am happy, though, that he was brought to justice, as a disgraced former-priest and child-sex offender."