This criminal priest, Monsignor John Day, was helped by the church's cover-up

  • By a Broken Rites researcher, article updated 19 September 2017

Broken Rites has forced the Catholic Church to admit that it protected one of Australia's worst paedophile priests, Monsignor John Day, for many years while he was committing sexual crimes against children. One church leader — Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, of the Ballarat diocese — spoke in defence of Monsignor Day. At one stage, Monsignor Day had another criminal priest, Father Gerald Ridsdale, working under him — two criminal priests in the one parish. And later a eulogy of Monsignor Day was published in the diocese's magazine (about this time, Father George Pell became editor of this magazine).

Monsignor John Day was a senior priest of the vast Ballarat Diocese, which covered 50 parishes in western Victoria, extending from the city of Mildura (on the New South Wales border in the north-west) to the city of Warrnambool (on the coast in the south). Ballarat is merely the town where the bishop lives. The major part of Monsignor Day's career was spent in Mildura (Sacred Heart parish), from 1957 to 1972. Mildura was an important parish and Day was promoted to the rank of Monsignor — one rung below a bishop.

When Broken Rites established its national telephone hotline in September 1993, one of the first calls we received was about Monsignor John Day. Now, years later, we are still receiving occasional calls and emails about him.

In late 1993, Broken Rites began researching Monsignor Day. Our investigation led us to a former Victoria Police detective, Denis Ryan, who worked in Mildura in 1962-72. Broken Rites discovered that, in 1971, after Day had been in Mildura for 15 years, Detective Ryan gathered 16 sworn written statements, from 14 boys and two girls at Mildura, detailing how Day had committed sexual crimes against them during the 1960s. The offences included buggery, attempted buggery, indecent assault and gross indecency. Parishioners and police notified Day's boss, Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, in 1971-2 about this evidence. But Mulkearns denied that there was any substance in the allegations against Day and he retained Day in the ministry. Thus, the Ballarat diocese managed to keep the lid on the Monsignor Day scandal for two decades … until Broken Rites ended the cover-up.

After researching Day for nearly four years, Broken Rites released a file on Day to major newspapers in western Victoria in June 1997. These newspapers each published articles about Day (the Mildura "Independent Star", 29 June to 7 July 1997; the Mildura "Sunraysia Daily" 30 June to 10 July 1997; and the Warrnambool "Standard", 30 June to 2 July 1997).

After this, the church authorities confirmed the Broken Rites revelations and apologised to Day's victims.

The priest and the prostitute

Police officer Denis Ryan has told Broken Rites that he first encountered Father John Day in Melbourne's prostitution precinct at St Kilda one night in 1954-5. Father Day, then from the Apollo Bay parish in south-western Victoria, was visiting the fleshpots of Melbourne. Young constable Ryan found Father Day in a car, drunk, with a known prostitute. Such "consorting" by males was then a criminal offence but Ryan's superior officer, a "loyal" Catholic, tipped off the Melbourne Catholic authorities who rescued Day from police custody.

In 1957, Father Day was appointed to the Mildura parish and became a Monsignor. This made him one of the most senior clerics in the Ballarat diocese, just below Ballarat's Bishop James O'Collins.

Day was a two-faced enforcer of the church’s official line about virginity, celibacy, chastity and morality. One of his first public statements in the Mildura press in 1957 was an attack on a local parade of girls in bikini swim suits. "Degrading, indecent and unchristian," he declared.

In 1962, Detective Ryan was transferred to Mildura, where he instantly recognized Day as the Melbourne prostitute's companion in 1954-5. He also noticed Day's hypocritical postures about "morality".

Complaints to the police

In 1971, Mr John Howden, deputy headmaster at St Joseph's College, Mildura, notified Detective Ryan that a 12-year-old girl pupil ("Nancy") had been indecently fondled by Day. Making inquiries, Ryan soon located other Day victims (mostly male) and began collecting 16 written statements from students and former students.

"I believe this was the tip of the iceberg," Denis Ryan told Broken Rites in 1997. "There could have been as many as 100 victims over the years."

The male victims testified in their police statements that Day had taken them from Mildura to Melbourne, where he molested them in his car and at his sister's empty Melbourne suburban house and in country motels.

In 1971 Howden (then aged 36) and Ryan (then aged 39) were both practising Catholics who attended mass at Day's Sacred Heart Church. They both believed that the Catholic Church should remove Day from Mildura and from the priesthood and that he should be charged with criminal offences.

Church insiders launch a cover-up

Ryan's investigation, however, was opposed by the head of the Mildura detectives' unit, Detective Sergeant James Barritt, who was a friend of Monsignor Day. Sergeant Barritt, like Detective Ryan, was a Catholic but Ryan placed his professional integrity above his private affiliations, while Barritt did the opposite.

Day and Barritt enlisted powerful forces in Victoria's Catholic community, including the head of the Victorian police minister's department. As a result, in late 1971, Detective Ryan was ordered off the Day investigation, even though he believed that the number of victims could reach a hundred.

Meanwhile, on 1 May 1971 Bishop Ronald Mulkearns had become the new bishop of Ballarat. Ryan says that he informed Mulkearns in 1971 about the written statements. Headmaster John Howden says he urged Mulkeams in 1971 to remove Day from parishes immediately but his plea was rejected.

In a written reply to Howden, Mulkearns said (in part): "I have been assured by the police, who rightly take a very serious view of charges of this nature, [that] . . . they have satisfied themselves there is no substance to these charges."

The bishop continued: "Moving Monsignor Day from the parish . . . is clearly impossible . . . any such move would be tantamount to a public declaration that I consider him guilty of charges of which he has been cleared by police investigation.

"I trust the fact that the police investigation which has evidently cleared Monsignor Day of the charges which have been made against him will result in your demonstration of loyalty to him at a time when he has been subjected to very great embarrassment and strain."

In late January 1972, a reporter from the Melbourne "Truth" weekly newspaper threatened to expose the cover-up. Therefore, a chief superintendent from the police Internal Affairs branch in Melbourne (a Catholic) rushed to Mildura for damage control. He promised Day's opponents that he would give an ultimatum to Bishop Mulkeams -- that Day had to go or he would be charged.

The monsignor escapes

To protect Day, the diocese immediately whisked him out of Mildura. Using church funds, Day went to Portugal, beyond the reach of Australian law.

The chief superintendent took Detective Ryan's file of statements back to Melbourne, informing the Police Chief Commissioner that the Mildura problem had been solved and Day would not be charged.

"Truth" reported (on 2 February 1972) that police were protecting an unnamed pedophile priest in an unnamed country town. Broken Rites has found a copy of this edition of "Truth" in the State Library of Victoria.

Les Shilton MLA (a former detective) spoke similarly in State Parliament on 7 March and 29 March 1972. He said pressure had been brought to bear not only in the police force but also in the police minister's department. He objected to Monsignor Day being allowed to leave Australia. He urged the government to appoint a Supreme Court judge to conduct an inquiry into the matter.

The Mildura "Sunraysia Daily" newspaper, however, remained silent, conscious of its advertisers and the town's power structure. The paper's then editor, George Tilley, was part of the town’s power structure. (Tilley was the editor from 1956 to 1988.) A former reporter at the "Sunraysia Daily" told Broken Rites in 1997 that all staff members in 1972 were instructed not to write about the Day cover-up, or even to make inquiries about it.

The detective is punished

Detective Ryan and headmaster Howden were ostracised by some fellow parishioners for acting against Day. Even those who privately supported them would not do so publicly.

Detective Ryan was punished for his uncovering of church and police corruption. In June 1972, he was ordered to transfer to Melbourne. But Ryan needed to stay in Mildura for family reasons. So he had to resign from the police force, thereby forfeiting almost all of his superannuation entitlements.

Sergeant Barritt, who had no family, was given an acceptable transfer and survived to retiring age with excellent superannuation.

Dennis Ryan says he was forced out of the job he loved because of the sectarian culture that existed in the Victoria Police at the time: "That was that the [Free]masons looked after the [Free]masons and the Catholics looked after the Catholics, especially when it came to clergy and the like. I was powerless to do anything. There hasn't been a day gone by that I haven't thought about letting the victims down. But I was shunned by the church, the police force and many people in the community for trying to do the right thing."

The monsignor is rewarded

Monsignor Day returned to Australia and, despite the sixteen signed statements, was rewarded with an appointment at the rural Timboon parish, near Warrnambool, in south-western Victoria, where he remained until he died in 1978.

  • After Day's death, a eulogy of him was published in the Ballarat diocesan magazine, "The Light". Around this time, according to church sources, Father George Pell became the editor of "The Light" but Broken Rites has been unable to ascertain whether Pell's appointment as editor was before or after the eulogy was published.

Broken Rites is concerned that a conscientious detective was pushed out of the police force while an alleged child-sex criminal priest was allowed to continue in the priesthood without being cleared of the allegations. Broken Rites is also concerned that the people of Timboon were not officially notified why Monsignor Day was transferred to their parish. Denis Ryan says: "I can't comprehend that a religious body such as the Catholic Church could justify protecting a person such as Monsignor Day sexually abusing children not over one year but, as I had distinct evidence, a number of years.

"Nor could I understand, being a policeman experienced in the Criminal Investigation Branch, that a group of people within Victoria Police could barrack for such a person as the monsignor, not because of what he did but because of who he was."

Day's recycling as a paedophile priest resembles that of Father Gerald Ridsdale. Detective Ryan believes that, as an offender. Day could surpass Ridsdale. (Incidentally, Ridsdale was an assistant priest under Monsignor Day at Mildura in 1964-6.)

The bishop still evasive in 1993

After Ridsdale's first jailing in 1993, a Day victim wrote to Bishop Mulkearns on 8 October 1993, reminding Mulkearns about the Day cover-up and asking why it occurred. (This victim also gave Broken Rites a copy of the letter.) Mulkearns replied to this victim on 9 December 1993 that "the Church is made up of both saints and sinners." He said the Church "is bigger and more important than the activities of one or another Church member, even should that member be or have been in the past a priest." (The victim gave Broken Rites a copy of the bishop's reply.)

When Broken Rites finally revealed the Monsignor Day story to west Victorian newspapers in June 1997, the Ballarat diocesan office at first issued a media release, dodging the issue. The diocese said that "any allegations" against Day in 1971 were unproven "because he was never charged and convicted".

Mildura parish admits that Broken Rites is right

However, Mildura parish priest Patrick Mugavin issued a circular on 4 July 1997, admitting that there was evidence to support claims that Day had sexually assaulted children.

"Personally I have no doubt as to what took place," Mugavin wrote. "I would like to offer a sincere apology [to victims] on behalf of the church and seek their forgiveness for what happened in the past. There is deep-seated shock and hurt within the parish particularly when trust is betrayed by a church leader.

"It seems there is substance to such allegations, although, unfortunately, they were never judged by a court of law.

"As a church we offer our sincere apology to any victims and deeply regret the hurt and pain that has been caused. If the response of the church authorities was perceived not to have been adequate, we express regret and sorrow."

Further allegations arise

Mildura parishioners, who knew the inside story of the Day cover-up, phoned Broken Rites in late 1997 to congratulate us on our research. We also had calls from Day's pre-Mildura parishes, informing us of offences by Day in 1950-56.

Callers also gave us evidence of other corrupt practices involving Monsignor Day, Sergeant Barrett and a prominent layman who was active in Day's parish. John Howden describes Day, Barritt and this layman as "the great triumvirate" in Mildura’s Catholic community.

Detective Sergeant George Baddeley, who succeeded Barritt as head of the Mildura detectives unit in the 1970s, told Broken Rites that Sergeant Barritt caught a criminal who received stolen property but he let the offender off if he made a donation to the church rebuilding fund.

Sergeant Barritt forced a Mildura illegal SP bookmaker to give Day a weekly donation in the form of a "winning bet" on the last race.

A new bishop admits that Broken Rites is right

Bishop Ronald Mulkearns retired in 1997. His successor, Bishop Peter Connors, told the Melbourne "Herald Sun" (14 February 2006) that ex-detective Denis Ryan has his sympathy and that he should receive an apology.

Connors said he had met a few of Day's victims. He said he believed Monsignor John Day had sexually assaulted young boys and girls in his custody.

"I am convinced Monsignor Day was an offender," Connors said.

Broken Rites believes that this admission by the hierarchy comes far too late. We are outraged that the church authorities protected and supported Monsignor John Day until the end of his days.

Footnote

Here is a list of Monsignor John Day's parish appointments (Broken Rites compiled this list by combing through the annual Catholic directories in the State Library of Victoria):-

  • Colac (St Mary's parish) 1936-9,
  • Ararat (Immaculate Conception parish) 1940-9,
  • Horsham (Saints Michael and John parish) 1950-1,
  • Beech Forest parish 1952-3,
  • Apollo Bay (Our Lady Star of the Sea parish) 1954-6,
  • Mildura (Sacred Heart parish) 1957-72 and
  • Timboon (St Joseph's parish) 1973-8.

According to ex-detective Denis Ryan, Monsignor John Day's full name was John Michael Joseph Day.