A priest, now 84, is jailed for two years for crimes committed 50 years ago

  • By a Broken Rites researcher

Two former schoolboys (both now aged in their sixties) have finally brought a Catholic priest to justice in Australia for crimes that he committed on them more than 50 years ago. On 19 December 2018, Father Thomas Fulcher (now aged 84) was jailed for a minimum of two years after pleading guilty to these crimes. After committing a sexual assault, Father Fulcher would even force a child to undergo the sacred ritual of Confession, in which the child would be committed to "secrecy" regarding the incident. Father Fulcher, who is still officially a priest (in retirement), is a member of a Catholic religious order (the Society of Mary) which has branches around Australia.

The Society of Mary is an international order of priests, with its Australian headquarters in Hunters Hill, Sydney. Its priests are also known as the "Marian Fathers" or (more commonly) the "Marist Fathers" (not to be confused with the Marist Brothers, who are a separate order). The Society of Mary has had parishes in several Australian states, and for many years it conducted a school at Lismore in New South Wales (called St John's College Woodlawn) and a boarding school in northern Tasmania (called Marist College at Burnie).

Fulcher was ordained as a Catholic priest in July 1959. The Catholic Church still lists him as a "reverend" priest. Aged in his eighties, he has been acting as a part-time chaplain in Sydney.

In the 1960s, Father Fulcher was working at the northern Tasmanian school as a teacher and sports and boarding-house master.

Broken Rites alerted the media that this court case was coming up for sentencing in the Tasmanian Supreme Court. Otherwise, the public might never have heard about it.

Thomas Fulcher pleaded guilty regarding three incidents of indecent assault, although the court heard that he abused one of the boys at intervals of four to six weeks for two years.

The two victims were boarders at the school between 1960 and 1967.

One victim, now aged in his 60s, reported the abuse to Australia's national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was held between 2013 and 2016. As usual, the Royal Commission advised victims to have an interview with child-protection detectives from the state police service. Under Australian laws (unlike in the USA) it is never too late for a child-sex victim to get the adult perpetrator convicted in court, especially if the perpetrator is a "person in authority" (such as a clergyman) who has a custodial role in relation to the child,.

These two victims of Fulcher were not necessarily the only boys who were targeted by Fulcher during his long career. These two were merely those who eventually spoke with detectives of the Tasmanian police. Too often, church-abuse victims remain silent.

The court was told that one of the two boys was aged 13 in 1964 when Father Fulcher invited him to the priest’s quarters. The boy was made to lie on the priest's bed and was told to remove his pants. Father Fulcher then began indecently assaulting the boy's penis.

Fulcher told the second boy to drop his pants so he could check that he was "normal", then performed an indecent assault on him. The victim told police that at the time he was abused, he had been taught that you could not refuse do to what a priest told you to do.

One of Fulcher's strategies, after committing an assault, was to put on his priestly Confessional robes and take the boy's Confession about the incident. [Fulcher is not the only priest who has used this Confessional tactic, which is a way of covering up the crime as the child is required to observe the "secrecy of the Confessional".]

At a pre-sentence hearing, the victims were each invited to submit an "impact statement" to the judge. An impact statement can show how the abuse (including the cover-up) has affected the victim's later life (during the decades since the abuse) and how the victim is still feeling hurt after all these years.

One of Fulcher's victims wrote in his statement that the abuse left him unable to trust people. He ended up in a distressed condition, at risk of harming himself.

Sentencing Fulcher, Justice Helen Wood described the offences as “a breach of trust at a profound level”.

“These children were innocent and priests were revered,” she said. “It was a complete betrayal of trust of these boys, their parents and society.”

Justice Wood said that making one of the boys take the sacrament of confession after he assaulted him was an “aggravating factor”.

“The sacrament cloaked his conduct in secrecy,” she said. “He exclusively attributed the so-called guilt for his own wrong-doing to an innocent victim."

Justice Wood sentenced Fulcher to four years in prison. He was ordered to serve a minimum two years behind bars before becoming eligible to apply for release on parole.

Broken Rites research

Broken Rites has checked some annual editions of the printed Australian Catholic Directories to see where Fulcher went after Tasmania's Marist College. In a 1979 edition, he was listed at Lismore NSW, where the Marist Fathers ran St John's College Woodlawn. In 1988, he was listed as the priest in charge of a parish (Our Lady Star of the Sea) at Gladstone, Queensland (within the Rockhampton regional diocese). In 1994, he was listed at a parish (Holy Name of Mary), which was staffed by the Marist Fathers, in Hunters Hill, Sydney.

According to statements in the Tasmanian Supreme Court, one of Fulcher's Tasmanian victims contacted the Catholic Church in 2002 about Fulcher's abuse. The Catholic Church, however, continued to list Fulcher as officially a priest in its annual directories after 2002. For example, in the 2014 directory, he was listed as "Reverend" Thomas Fulcher, living in the Villa Maria Community for retired Society of Mary priests in Mary Street, Hunters Hill, Sydney. Thus, he was still a priest, working in Sydney as a part-time chaplain (that is, no longer working full-time in a school or parish). Retired priests are still available to perform weddings or funerals or to fill in for a parish priest who is away.