Church paid huge sums to lawyers to defend a criminal priest, Father James Fletcher: Background article

  • By a Broken Rites Australia researcher

The Catholic diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in New South Wales has admitted that it paid an expensive team of lawyers to defend a paedophile priest in a child-abuse court case. The priest, Father James Patrick Fletcher, pleaded not guilty in 2004 to multiple counts of anal and oral sexual penetration of an altar boy, Daniel Feenan. The offences began in 1990, when Daniel was 12. A jury found Fletcher guilty on all charges. Legal experts have told the media that Fletcher's legal costs for the 11-day trial exceeded $200,000. The church's defence team included a Queen's Counsel, plus a second barrister and a solicitor. Fletcher had various victims, most of whom were still remaining silent. This court case in 2004 was about one victim, Daniel.

After the guilty verdict, the media questioned Fletcher's superior (the Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, Most Reverend Michael Malone) about aspects of the case, including how the defence team was financed. Malone said that Fletcher "availed" himself of an "offered loan facility" to help fund his defence. It is not known how the "loan" was supposed to be "re-paid", especially seeing that Fletcher was about to be jailed for the crimes. It is not known why Bishop Malone called this payment a "loan".

Bishop Malone also admitted he was aware of "one priest from one parish" donating part of the parish's Christmas collection to help pay Fletcher's lawyers. [The parishioners of this generous priest did not know that their Christmas donations were to be used to help another priest, Father Fletcher, to evade child-sex charges.]

Daniel was merely the first Fletcher victim who eventually contacted the police - in 2002 at the age of 25.

After Fletcher was charged in 2003, further Fletcher victims (from Fletcher's other parishes) began contacting the police.

Victim's identity

When the the Broken Rites website first published an article about Fletcher's 2004 court proceedngs, Broken Rites did not reveal Daniel's real name. (This is in line with Broken Rites policy, which is to protect the privacy of victims).

However, in July 2008, Daniel Feenan gave an interview to the Newcastle Herald daily newspaper, stating that he now would like the public to know his name.

And in late 2012, Daniel's mother (Patricia Feenan) published a book, entitled Holy Hell: A Catholic family's story of faith, betrayal and pain , about how the Catholic Church inflicted the criminal Father Fletcher on her son Daniel and how this betrayal has hurt the whole family.

Therefore, in updating this article, Broken Rites is publishing the victim's real name, Daniel, in accordance with the family's wishes.

Towards the end of this article, more information is given about Patricia Feenan's book.

The priest's background

One of the victims who contacted police in 2003-4 said he was abused by Fletcher as early as 1978 - 12 years before Daniel's time. In 1978, Fr Jim Fletcher had been the administrator (i.e., priest in charge) at St John's Cathedral, Maitland. He was also the master of ceremonies for the then bishop, Bishop Leo Clarke. (Bishop Clarke was in charge of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese from 1976 to 1995.) Fletcher's position at the cathedral was a prestigious one. Fletcher's colleagues at this cathedral (as shown in the Catholic directory for 1983-4) included another up-and-coming young priest, Father Philip Wilson, who eventually became the Archbishop of Adelaide.

Fletcher took a particular interest in altar boys. Years later, his victims told how Fletcher had "groomed" them before sexually abusing them.

According to police, Bishop Clarke knew in the late 1970s and early '80s that Fletcher's liking for boys was a potential public-relations problem for the cathedral. Therefore, in the mid-1980s, Bishop Clarke removed Fletcher from Maitland (a demotion that he resented thereafter). However, instead of removing Fletcher from parish work altogether, Bishop Clarke transferred him to other, less important parishes, including Gateshead (in Newcastle) and later Denman (a rural parish) in the mid-1980s. In these parishes, the congregations did not know about Fletcher's past, so he was able to continue unhindered with more altar boys. (Yet another of Fletcher's alleged victims - from 1986-7 - came forward in 2004, as will be explained later in this article.)

By 1988, Fletcher had been transferred to yet another parish. Broken Rites has checked the 1988 edition of the annual Australian Cathholic Directory, which indicates that in 1988 Father James Fletcher became the priest in charge at Dungog (St Mary's parish). (This is a rural parish, 70km north of Newcastle.) Thus, Fletcher now had access to a fresh lot of altar boys and a fresh lot of unsuspecting parents. One of these altar boys (Daniel) ultimately caused the unmasking of Fletcher in 2002.

The story of Daniel

Fletcher, who was known to parishioners as "Father Jim", committed sexual crimes against Daniel (an altar boy) repeatedly from the age of 12 in 1990. The details, as later established in court, were as follows.

As a Catholic priest, Father Fletcher ingratiated himself with Daniel and his family, had meals at their home and lured Daniel away from home to inflict sexual acts upon the boy. Fletcher drove the boy to parks and other public locations around the Hunter Valley. Fletcher, who had enormous authority over the boy as a Catholic priest, intimidated the boy into allowing Fletcher to perform the sex acts. The boy trusted the priest and therefore obeyed him. Fletcher directed the boy to perform oral sex on the priest and these encounters eventually progressed to anal sex.

Daniel testified that, during anal intercourse, "he had never felt pain like it in his life" and had looked at a Saint Christopher medal in the car while the intercourse took place. The boy then cried and Fletcher hugged him, saying that "it was a normal part of life".

After one incident, Fletcher dropped the boy at a bus stop to find his own way home.

Daniel was unable to tell anyone about Fletcher's crimes because, as a priest, Fletcher had an exalted position in the Catholic community and he was a friend of Daniel's parents. Furthermore, to intimidate Daniel into silence, Fletcher warned him that "no-one would believe him" if he told anyone "because priests never lie. And he threatened to hurt Daniel's siblings if the boy ever spoke out.

During these years of abuse, Daniel increasingly became a "difficult" boy but his parents did not know the cause of his grumpiness.

The sexual abuse continued throughout Daniel's secondary schooling but Fletcher was charged only with certain selected incidents in the boy's early teenage years. It was not until Daniel was in Year 12 that he finally broke away from Fletcher's clutches.

By 1995, Fletcher had moved on to a new parish -- St Brigid's parish in rural Branxton, west of Maitland - leaving Daniel to suffer in silence at the previous parish.

This secrecy disrupted Daniel's adolescent development. He became distant, angry and depressed. He became a binge-drinker. At age 19, he tried to commit suicide.

Finally, during a serious personal crisis in 2002, aged 25, Daniel admitted to his parents that he was a sex-abuse victim and that the offender was the Reverend Father Jim Fletcher. He disclosed how Father Fletcher forced him to have sexual intercourse with the priest.

Daniel's father complained about Fletcher to the new bishop, Most Reverend Michael Malone, who had succeeded Bishop Clarke in 1995. But later the family realised that notifying the diocese turned out to be an unwise move.

After telling his family, Daniel made a signed, sworn statement for the NSW police in mid-2002. As part of their investigation, the police contacted the Maitland-Newcastle diocesan office to ask if the diocese had received any previous complaints about Fletcher in any of his parishes. But this was another unwise move because the diocese "tipped off" Fletcher at Branxton parish that he was facing potential criminal charges. This enabled Fletcher to get his story together and to begin marshalling church support for his defence.

According to public promises previously made by Australian Catholic bishops, the Maitland-Newcastle diocese should have transferred Fletcher immediately to other duties or they could have granted him leave (which the church sometimes disguises as "study leave" or "sick leave" for a priest facing sex-abuse allegations), so that he would not have contact with families or children, while the police investigation was proceeding. However, the diocese allowed Fletcher to continue working in his parish among families and children. The diocese was prepared to continue protecting Fletcher as long as it could get away with it.

Indeed, in January 2003 (six months after the police complaint), the diocese even enlarged Fletcher's area of responsibilities, by adding another parish (Lochinvar) to that he already held (Branxton), thereby increasing his parishioners from 2447 to 3125. This additional appointment was documented in the next annual National Council of Priests directory, compiled in January 2003.

By March 2003, it became evident that the police intended to formally charge James Fletcher with child-sex crimes. This meant that the charges eventually would be reported in the media, so, faced with a looming scandal, the diocese finally stood Fletcher down. This was nine months after the diocese learned about the police investigation.

Priest arrested

On 14 May 2003, police arrested Father James Fletcher and laid the charges. Fletcher, with his legal defence strategy now organised, denied the charges. A magistrate granted him bail on condition that he have no contact with children younger than 16.

The Fletcher charges were reported in the media. Newcastle and Hunter Valley newspapers demanded to be told why the diocese had waited so long before withdrawing Fletcher from parish ministry. Why had he been kept in his position during the police investigation?

In a media statement immediately after the laying of charges, Bishop Michael Malone said the diocese had not stood Fletcher down in June 2002 because it "did not deem him to be a risk". [The church's statement did not explain how Fletcher had suddenly become a "risk" only after the media exposure, whereas he had "not been a risk" beforehand while the church was able to prevent Fletcher's parishioners from knowing about the matter.]

In fact, Father James Fletcher obviously had been a huge risk for many years, as shown in the subsequent court proceedings and by the emergence of further victims afterwards.

Thus, by speaking to the police, Daniel ensured that the church's cover-up of Fletcher was thwarted, although Fletcher continued to receive support in church circles during the court proceedings and afterwards.

In the East Maitland District Court in November 2004, James Patrick Fletcher (aged 63) was charged with having performed sexual intercourse (anal and oral) on Daniel on eight occasions in 1990-1. He was also charged with committing an aggravated act of indecency on the child.

Fletcher pleaded "not guilty" to all charges but declined to give evidence in the witness box (to defend himself against the charges). This protected him from being cross-examined.

The jury, comprising eight men and four women, heard the full details of Daniel's abuse. The evidence was thoroughly sifted, at length, by the prosecutor and by the church's lawyers.

Finally, the prosecution produced another alleged victim of Fletcher -- a 30-year-old man who said he was abused by Fletcher at the age of 13. This witness, who can be identified only as "Mr G", told the court that he was he twice stayed overnight at Father Fletcher's presbytery (parish house) in 1986 and 1987. (This was in one of Fletcher's new parishes after he had left the Maitland cathedral.) Mr G said that, both times, Fletcher gave him a goodnight kiss, interfered with the boy's genitals, performed oral sex on the boy and ordered him not to tell his parents. Mr G said he told nobody about this abuse until Fletcher asked a family member for a character reference. Mr G then contacted the prosecutors and arranged to give this evidence in court.

Guilty verdict

On 6 December 2004, after long deliberations in the jury room, the jury unanimously returned a verdict of guilty on all nine charges. Fletcher was placed in prison on remand, pending the sentencing on a later date.

Bishop Michael Malone told the media that he wished to apologise to the victims (plural) and their families and friends "for the immense pain and suffering caused by Father Fletcher's criminal actions". He apologised for not transferring Father Fletcher from parish work immediately after being told about the child-sex charges. He said: "In retrospect, the matter could have been handled better and we have learned that we have to respond more appropriately to these issues."

Malone said that Fletcher would not return to the ministry. [This was a safe assumption because Fletcher had been thoroughly exposed and was facing a jail sentence].

Malone claimed that the diocese was setting up a toll-free telephone number so that people could talk to the church about the matter. [This is a common tactic, which often results in further victims reporting offences - possibly about other perpetrators - to the church instead of contacting the police or a victims' group such as Broken Rites.] However, when a Newcastle Herald reporter rang the toll-free number, nobody answered.

Malone also telephoned the victim, Daniel, telling him that he was courageous for coming forward. Malone also urged Daniel to "keep your faith". Daniel told the Newcastle Herald that this did not amount to an apology.

After Fletcher's conviction, the diocese finally dropped his name from the March 2005 directory of the National Council of Priests. The church did not want to mention that he was in remand prison, awaiting his full sentence.

Jailed

At the sentencing in Sydney District Court on 11 April 2005, Judge Graham Armitage said Fletcher committed an "inexcusable" breach of trust. He said the victim's evidence was the most compelling that he had heard.

Judge Armitage said the victim had presented to the court as a down-to-earth young man who was truthful.

Judge Armitage sentenced James Fletcher, aged 64, to a maximum 10 years in jail, with a non-parole period of seven and-a-half years.

Mother's anguish

Outside the court, Daniel's mother (Patricia) told the media that, for her family, the sentence was "life-long" and no amount of time in prison could restore the joy in faith that they had lost.

Praising her son's courage, the woman described him as "an extraordinarily brave boy".

The mother thanked a New South Wales Police detective, Detective Sergeant (later Chief Inspector) Peter Fox (of Maitland and Cessnock), for his diligence and compassion in helping her son. She said she hoped her son's actions would make it easier for other victims to speak out.

In media statements after Fletcher's sentencing, Bishop Michael Malone admitted that he had handled the Fletcher matter badly. He also admitted that more needed to be done to ensure that those affected by Fletcher's actions got proper attention and support.

Appeals to higher courts

Fletcher's conviction meant that the church was forced finally to distance itself from Fletcher, though not completely. Several of Fletcher's fellow priests continued to organise on his behalf.

Fletcher appealed to the NSW Court of Appeal against his conviction. The church lawyers argued that the trial judge erred in admitting evidence from the second altar boy, Mr G, who said Fletcher performed oral sex on him in 1986 and 1987.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal. One of the appeal judges, Justice Carolyn Simpson, said the trial judge was correct in allowing Mr G's evidence. At the time of the alleged offences against him, Mr G was the same age as the complainant [Daniel] and there were sufficient similarities between the two sets of allegations for the evidence to be admitted, Judge Simpson said.

After losing his appeal in New South Wales, Fletcher then initiated an appeal to the High Court of Australia against the conviction, again opposing the use of Mr G's evidence. A High Court appeal is an expensive exercise but Fletcher had backing for this from his supporters in the church.

More victims

Meanwhile, more victims of Fletcher were coming forward. On 13 December 2004 — while he was awaiting his sentence — Fletcher was charged in Maitland Local Court with having indecently assaulted yet another teenage boy. These incidents occurred at Maitland in January-March 1978 when Fletcher was located at the cathedral. This was a decade before Fletcher went to Daniel's parish. This case was adjourned to 18 April 2005 but, by then, Fletcher was in jail and the prosecutors considered that there was no point in bringing him back to court again. The 1978 victim was not the same as the previously mentioned "Mr G", whose incidents occurred at a different parish in 1986-7.

Fletcher died in jail in January 2006, from a stroke, after serving 14 months of his jail sentence. His funeral service, held in his last parish at Branxton, was attended by Bishop Michael Malone, vicar-general Father Jim Saunders and 31 other priests. Fletcher's long-time friend Father Des Harrigan, who officiated at the service, asked those present to pray for Fletcher.

Fletcher was buried in the priests' section of Sandgate Cemetery, near Newcastle.

Father Harrigan, who was the executor of Fletcher's estate, confirmed that the High Court appeal application would still go ahead. Harrigan said that, as the executor, he had to follow the wishes of the deceased.

Bishop Michael Malone said he would like to see the appeal proceed, so that Fletcher's family, his family and his victims could all "find closure".

A family member of one of Fletcher's victims told the Newcastle Herald: "I cannot understand why his [Fletcher's] supporters keep pushing this. He is dead. Can't they understand that it is just perpetuating the pain for everyone involved, particularly the victims?"

A victim's letter

One of Fletcher's victims wrote a letter to the editor, published in the Newcastle Herald on 10 March 2006, asking Fletcher's supporters not to proceed with the High Court appeal. The letter indicates that the writer's family had encountered Fletcher in the late 1970s

The letter said, referring to Fletcher's abuse: "I am not the courageous young man [Daniel] who came forward, complained and testified about that abuse.

"Nor am I the other brave person ["Mr G"] who gave evidence in support of that claim.

"I am, however, the survivor of years of grooming and sexual abuse at the hands of Father Fletcher.

"I met him as a shy nine-year-old, a member of a devout Catholic family whose devotion to the church meant that closer to a priest was to be closer to God.

"For 25 years I tried to forget what Fletcher did to me and for 25 years I did not tell a soul. For the past two years, I have been forced to confront my reality over and over again, and I have had to contend with people who cannot see the truth.

"The Catholic Bishop and Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle believe my story, as do the NSW police. Sadly, though, Father Des Harrigan and a (hopefully) small group of other people believe that me and Fletcher's other victims are liars and that we and our families should keep on suffering. Witness this week's appeal by Father Harrigan to the High Court.

"I feel very sorry for Jim Fletcher's mother, family, friends and supporters. It must be a terrible burden to have to confront the double life of someone you love. Nonetheless, I would like to ask them all, and Father Harrigan in particular, to stop trying to clear his name.

"It can do Fletcher, his supporters and his victims no good.

"It is time that they too confronted their reality - they were deceived, and in their own way abused, by a man who was driven by his own desires." [End of letter. Name and address withheld. ]

On the same day that this letter was published, the High Court dismissed Father Harrigan's application to appeal. Chief Justice Murray Gleeson said: "We [the judges] are of the view that the evidence in question [by Mr G] was correctly admitted in the particular circumstances of this case and we are not persuaded there has been any miscarriage of justice."

By April 2006, six of Fletcher's sex-abuse victims had contacted the NSW police. However, police told Broken Rites that the police can do nothing further about Fletcher because of his death. Therefore, the police said, these new complainants should seek justice by claiming compensation from the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. The payouts by the church would be a kind of fine for the church's negligence in inflicting Fletcher on his victims.

Family hurt by the church

A close friend of Daniel's family told Broken Rites in early 2006: "The whole process of the past three years has been traumatic, especially by the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese giving Fletcher a tip-off that the victim had gone to the police.

"The church's compensation process is slow and the Catholic Church seems to be trying to minimize the damage done to this young man and his family. After five years of this trauma, the family is struggling to keep their head up.

"The church claims that it was not responsible for the priest. However, we believe, from things that we have heard, that the diocese knew that Fletcher was a danger to children but it protected him. I believe the church is responsible. They have a duty of care. And they claim that priests are people that you could welcome into your home and lives. It was a huge breach of trust."

An interesting aspect of the Fletcher case is that in the late 1990s, while Daniel was suffering in silence about his sexual abuse, his local bishop (Bishop Michael Malone) was appointed as a member of the Australian Catholic Church's National Committee on Professional Standards, which supervises the church's handling of sexual abuse. And Adelaide's Archbishop Philip Wilson, who had begun his own career at the Maitland cathedral in the early 1980s in the heyday of Father Jim Fletcher, became the chairman of this national committee.

Daniel goes public

On 14 July 2008 (three years after Daniel Feenan's evidence put Fletcher in jail), Daniel gave an interview to journalist Joanne McCarthy of the Newcastle Herald. Daniel (then aged 32) said that he would like the public to know his name.

"I'm sick of reading about Fletcher's 'anonymous sexual abuse victim'; I'm sick of constantly being linked with his name and having what he did define me in a public sense because it doesn't define me, and I'm over it," Daniel said.

"I am Daniel Feenan. This has gone on for 20 years. Enough. For two-thirds of my life I've lived with this and I'm tired of it...Time to move on."

Mother's book published

After Patricia Feenan's book (HOLY HELL: A Catholic family's story of faith, betrayal and pain) was published in 2012, the Maitland Mercury daily newspaper published the following article on 24 November 2012:

  • Patricia Feenan and her family were devout Catholics. They had complete trust in the godliness and integrity of the church and its leaders, until a black-hearted priest by the name of James Patrick Fletcher took away their son’s innocence forever.

    There was a lot priestly business in the Feenan family home. John Feenan was the business manager of the Maitland Newcastle Diocese and Patricia was a special minister at the church in Clarence Town.

    “I had a traditional Catholic upbringing where the priest was almost like God,” Patricia said.

    “I guess [James Patrick] Fletcher groomed the whole family; he didn’t only did groom Daniel and his brothers – his brothers weren’t abused – but that was part of this thing . . . to groom us all and he had other families with sons. The places where he went had sons. I think we just thought he was good with boys.

    “It’s hard to reflect now,” she said haltingly. “I had four sons; I never got out of the kitchen or the laundry - I was trying to do a bit of teaching, John was really busy in his job and we just tried to do the right thing and attend mass ... live your life like Christians. We had evil in our midst, but we didn’t know it.”

    The eldest of four boys, Daniel was brought up surrounded by love. A champion cricketer, he cherishes the happy memories, especially of playing backyard cricket with his father, brothers and cousins at every opportunity.

    But the normally happy boy began to exhibit worrying behaviour as he grew into manhood. His behaviour worsened and was erratic.

    “Daniel’s behaviour was pretty worrying as he began to show a fair bit of anger and he started to abuse alcohol,” Patricia said.

    “When we knew about the abuse, it explained his risk-taking behaviour, which included a suicide attempt. A typical victim when you look at the research and the profile of an abused child. We had no idea and eventually he disclosed to me that he was [sexually abused] when I asked the question.

    “It was the only question I hadn’t asked about what would explain his bad behaviour and the fact that he didn’t seem to respect himself – he lived life on the edge. I don’t know why I asked that question, it just came into my head.”

    Daniel was 24 years old when he made this admission to his mum, but she said some people never let their secret be known.

    With the recent announcement [by the Federal Government, in November 2012] of a Royal Commission, men and women in their 60s and 70s have begun to speak out.

    “[The announcement] has opened up quite a discussion,” Patricia said. “Paedophiles operate under silence and their victims stay silent because they somehow put the guilt and the shame onto them [the victims] – they say no one will believe you and they stay silent and victims just try to get on with their lives, if they can.”

    She said it took 11 months for Daniel to give his statement to police – it was that harrowing.

    “He was hospitalised a few times during that time and he was fairly traumatised and stressed,” Patricia said. “It took over 50 hours of sitting with [Detective Inspector] Peter Fox; he took Daniel very carefully and gently through that process.”

    After word that Daniel had gone to the police began to circulate, it wasn’t long before disparaging rumours about the Feenans, particularly Daniel, also began to leach through the community.

    Priests, including Bishop Michael Malone, chose to give solace to Fletcher. The Bishop has since apologised to the family.

    The priest, as Patricia refers to Fletcher, was jailed for 10 years on nine charges of child sex abuse.

    “There could have been many more charges, but the DPP [Department of Public Prosecutions] settled on the nine they thought would have a good chance of successful prosecution.

    “He died in jail 14 months after he was sentenced in early 2005.”

Mother still feels the hurt

Here is an extract from Patricia Feenan’s book, Holy Hell: A Catholic family's story of faith, betrayal and pain , published in 2012:

  • “On the day I was to start giving my statement to the police I drove slowly towards Maitland, trying to stay calm so that my words would be coherent.

    “I had left myself plenty of time for the half hour drive but as I approached Maitland, I began to get upset.

    “Memories of the priest’s involvement in my family began to bubble around in my head and so I pulled into a little park located about 10 minutes from the town centre.

    “I was actually physically sick. I was alone. I remembered the meals I’d cooked for him, zucchini pie was his favourite, and the buttons I’d sewn on his black shirts.

    “Exchanges of Christmas and birthday gifts and dinner parties for his mother and sister and social gatherings with friends of his were past memories that crowded into my thoughts.

    “Dozens of snippets of conversations I had had with him were also recalled and I remembered the times we had asked him for advice when we were worried about Daniel.”

Broken Rites is proud to have helped in reporting the Father James Patrick Fletcher case (and the Catholic Church's cover-up) since the court proceedings in 2004.