The church apologises re this priest at a girls' school

Broken Rites Australia has prompted the Catholic Church to apologise to a Queensland woman who was sexually assaulted by a prominent priest when she was a schoolgirl in the early 1970s.

The woman, "Kate" (not her real name), was born in 1960. After hearing about Broken Rites, she rang us in December 1993 to report that she was sexually penetrated on several occasions by Father Dominic Fitzmaurice while she was a pupil, aged 12, in Grade 7 at St Martin de Porres girls' primary school, which was attached to Our Lady of Graces parish in Carina, south-east Brisbane.

Fitzmaurice was a senior priest in the Dominican Fathers (also known as the Order of Preachers), which staffed the Carina parish on behalf of the Brisbane archdiocese.

Like many victims, Kate was forced to remain silent about the sexual abuse while it was happening to her. Her school discouraged Father Fitzmaurice's victims from telling their parents about what the priest was doing.

Years later, Kate tried to tell her mother about what Fitzmaurice had done to her at school but her mother (a "devout" Catholic) did not want to hear about it and she told Kate to "get over it and move on".

By 1993, Kate could keep the secret no longer because she herself now had a daughter aged 12. So she phoned Broken Rites.

By 1993, Kate's mother had died. That is, Kate had never had an opportunity to tell her mother the full story of Father Fitzmaurice.

The priest's background

Broken Rites researched Fitzmaurice's background for Kate. We ascertained that he was born in Ireland on 14 February 1913. He entered the Dominican order in 1931, aged 18, and was ordained in 1936, aged 23, becoming officially "Fr Dominic Valentine Fitzmaurice".

The annual Australian Catholic Directories listed him as being at the Dominican Australian headquarters (St Dominic's parish) in Camberwell, Melbourne, in 1949. Next, he was in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1951; then back in Camberwell from 1954 to 1969.

In early 1970, aged 57, he was appointed as the Parish Priest (that is, in charge) at Carina (then called Belmont), Brisbane, with two younger Dominican priests assisting him there.

Kate's story

Kate told Broken Rites that, at the Carina parish, Fr Fitzmaurice lived in the grounds of the school and the parish church. As the Parish Priest, Fitzmaurice controlled the parish school.

Kate's Grade 7 classroom was only a few metres from the door of Fitzmaurice's house. He had free access to the girls' playground.

Kate said that Fitzmaurice relied on the pupils' mothers and the Grade 6-7 girls to do his cooking and cleaning. This saved the cost of a housekeeper. His house had a special small cupboard-like room, and he allowed the Grade 6-7 girls to use this as a cubby.

Kate said: "Fitzmaurice used to wear a long cream Dominican gown. One day, when I was at his house, he lifted up his gown and he was wearing nothing under it. He made me touch his genitals. He did this on further occasions, and this progressed to him doing things with me which I now know is called sexual intercourse."

Kate told Broken Rites that the assaults were a big shock to her. Kate, like her classmates, had no knowledge of sex.

Kate said she found out later (much too late) that Fitzmaurice was universally regarded as a molester and that he used to grope at the breasts of adult women parishioners. She later realised that the mothers must have known, all along, that their daughters were at risk. But Fitzmaurice's position in the Catholic community protected him because parishioners were reluctant to report wrongdoing by a priest.

This 20-year cover-up had a devastating impact on Kate's life. By 1993, she had had tried to commit suicide several times.

'The Groper'

In January-February 1994, Broken Rites made inquiries in Brisbane and located other former pupils from Kate's school (aged in their thirties by 1994), who testified that Fitzmaurice was nicknamed "the Groper". He was notorious for indecently assaulting girls — and their mothers — on the breasts, even in public.

Fitzmaurice even groped the head nun. This was witnessed by a pupil, "Beth", who told Broken Rites: "When I was 11 or 12, Fitzmaurice groped at my chest countless times. He also groped my mother. In 1973, I saw him walk up to the head nun and he stroked her on a breast while she was talking to other people. She ignored it but later she got all the Grade 7 girls together and told them not to be alone with him and not to tell anybody outside the school what he had been doing to us. The school preferred that the girls did not even tell their parents."

Broken Rites located a former teacher at the school ("Fiona", who was not a nun), who confirmed that, in 1973, the head nun warned the girls to steer clear of Fitzmaurice. Fiona said the head nun also instructed the girls not to tell anybody outside the school about the assaults — a classic cover-up.

The head nun evidently complained about Fitzmaurice to the Dominican headquarters in Melbourne. Fiona said that, soon after this, in 1973, the Dominican national headquarters called Fitzmaurice back to Melbourne, before his term as Parish Priest had expired. Parishioners and parents were told that his removal was due to "illness".

In 1974 the Dominicans sent Fitzmaurice back to Ireland, where he had relatives. He was then aged 61.

Church apology

In December 1993, at Kate's request, Broken Rites wrote to the Dominican headquarters in Melbourne, outlining Kate's trauma and demanding that the Dominicans should pay for counselling for her. Kate's story did not surprise the Dominicans — in view of the complaint by the head nun 20 years earlier.

In 1994, Kate was living in a remote town in far-north Queensland. The Dominicans wrote to Kate in January 1994, accepting her account of the event and offering to fly a counsellor to Kate's town twice a month for three months. The Dominicans Australian head, Father Mark O'Brien, travelled by air from Melbourne to North Queensland to apologise to Kate in person.

In a letter to Kate, Fr O'Brien, wrote: "On behalf of the Dominican Order I would like to say that we are very sorry for what happened to you and want to help you to cope with the painful memory and take control of your life in a way that will give you hope for the future."

In January 1994, Kate also received a letter from her local bishop (Bishop Raymond Benjamin of Townsville), expressing regret for what had happened to Kate.

Media coverage

In March 1994, on her own initiative, Kate bravely told her story to the media to show other victims of church sexual abuse that they need not suffer in silence. The story appeared in newspapers throughout Australia on 14 March 1994. The newspapers also reported the letter of apology from the Dominicans (for example, in the Melbourne Herald Sun, 14 March 1994.

Kate's story was also told on the Seven Network program "Real Life" (the forerunner of "Today Tonight") on 22 March 1994. And her story was featured a large article in the "New Weekly" national magazine on 25 April 1994.

In reply to the revelations about Fitzmaurice, Dominican head Fr Mark O'Brien said that Fitzmaurice had been suffering from dementia and Parkinson's disease in his final years. This could help to explain Fitzmaurice's behaviour, O'Brien said.

But, if Fitzmaurice was deteriorating, why did the Dominicans send him 2,000 kilometres away from their national headquarters in Melbourne to Brisbane? And why did they appoint him to be the Parish Priest in charge of Kate's school?

Fitzmaurice's role gave him opportunities to be alone with a girl in private. If his behaviour was deteriorating (such as groping girls and their mothers in public), why did nobody bother to find out what he might be doing to a girl in private?

And, anyway, why did the church have an eccentric bachelor (fond of wearing a long frock, with no underwear) living, unsupervised, in a house situated on a children's playground?

Further stories

As a result of Kate's revelations, more ex-students of her old school rang Broken Rites to tell about being indecently assaulted by Fitzmaurice in the 1970s.

"Bonnie", born in 1960, said: "I was in Grade 7 at St Martin's primary school. Father Fitzmaurice groped me. All the girls regarded Fitzmaurice as a dirty old man. If any other man did that to us, he could be in trouble with the police. But there was nothing we could do about Father Fitzmaurice because he was the parish priest and he was the boss of the school grounds. The girls always tried to avoid him. When I recently heard about the story of Kate, it didn't surprise me."

"Sally", born in 1958, was in Grade 8 at the San Sisto Dominican girls' secondary school while Kate was in Grade 7 at St Martin's primary school across the road. Sally said:

"Fitzmaurice used to give me the creeps. He touched a girl who was a friend of mine.

"Whenever he came near me, I always kept moving. If you were wearing a cardigan when you were with him, it paid to do it up. I felt guilty about being so suspicious of him because, after all, he was a priest."

"Penny", the mother of a girl who was at St Martin's primary school with Kate, said: "When I heard about the Kate story [in March 1994], I wasn't surprised to hear this about Father Fitzmaurice. In the early 1970s, various mothers were telling each other: 'Don't go near him because he has wandering hands.'

"Someone suggested complaining to the bishop but someone else said not to because a priest would have to be mentally sick to be doing that, and we should not complain about a poor mentally sick priest."

The newspaper and TV stories about Kate in 1994 encouraged more people to phone Broken Rites to report sexual abuse by other church personnel in other parts of Australia. The age-old cover-up was being rectified at last.