After 30 years, these female victims finally succeed in exposing a priest's crimes

  • By a Broken Rites researcher

Several women have told Broken Rites Australia how they were sexually abused, when they were teenage girls, by Father John Ignatius O'Callaghan, who was a "chaplain" for the girls' section of the Catholic Church's Australia-wide "Young Christian Workers" organisation. According to colleagues, Father O'Callaghan also had a long-time sexual partner, with whom he fathered two children.

In late 1993, the media reported that Broken Rites had begun researching clergy sexual abuse. Within a few months, several callers (from different parts of Australia) phoned Broken Rites, reporting how they encountered Father John O'Callaghan 30 years earlier, when they were youngsters in the girls' section of the YCW.

They told Broken Rites that they wanted to put their story in the public domain, so as to break the silence. The Broken Rites research project gave them an opportunity to achieve this.

Researching Father John O'Callaghan, Broken Rites found that he was born in 1929, the third child in a family of eight. In those times, it was common for a large Catholic family to channel one of its sons into a career in the priesthood.

Broken Rites has researched O'Callaghan's movements in the archives of the annual Australian Catholic Directory. O'Callaghan was ordained for the Melbourne archdiocese in 1955. His first parishes, in the late 1950s, were in East Melbourne (St John's) and West Brunswick (St Joseph's).

In 1960, while ministering in Broadmeadows parish (St Dominic's), O'Callaghan was appointed as the Victorian chaplain of the girls' section of the Young Christian Workers movement. By 1964, according to the Australian Catholic Directory, this position had evidently become a full-time one; and he was listed as being based at a residence for chaplains, situated opposite Melbourne's Caulfield Racecourse. The postal address of this two-storey residence was 32 Queens Avenue, Carnegie. This street, which runs along the eastern side of the racecourse, is the boundary between the Caulfield and Carnegie postal districts; and the chaplains' house was on the Carnegie side of the road.

This house near the Caulfield Racecourse was also used by other chaplains (for example, Father Paul Willy, who worked in the Young Christian Workers Movement in Victoria throughout the 1960s. (See more about Fr Paul Willy later in this article.)

The Queens Avenue address was also used by some hospital chaplains.

Sometimes O'Callaghan was also referred to, in print, as being involved in the "National Catholic Girls' Movement".

In approximately late 1964, O'Callaghan ceased being a YCW chaplain and he ceased having any parish appointment. Instead, in the next edition of the annual Australian Catholic Directory, he was listed as being "on leave". It would be interesting to find out the reason for this absence.

On some date in 1965 O'Callaghan returned to parish work in the Melbourne archdiocese — as an assistant priest at South Camberwell (St Cecilia's) and later at Seymour (the Immaculate Conception parish) and Ivanhoe (the Mary Immaculate parish). Finally he was promoted to the role of Parish Priest in charge at Spotswood (St Margaret Mary parish, 1972-84) and Clayton (St Peter's, 1984-93).

The annual Australian Catholic Directory indicates that, as well as holding the above appointments. O'Callaghan also acted as a part-time chaplain for the Army Reserve.

Report from a female victim

Broken Rites first heard about John O'Callaghan in a phone call from a Queensland woman, "Cathy", in January 1994. She said: "I met O'Callaghan at a big YCW conference in Queensland about 1964 when I was 16. Later I visited Melbourne on YCW business and, while I was there, O'Callaghan offered me a lift in his car to visit a YCW group in a country area."

[Cathy then described how O'Callaghan stopped the car on an un-paved track, where he behaved indecently towards her. Cathy gave Broken Rites a detailed verbal account of the indecent behaviour, but the details are not suitable for including in this article.]

Cathy said: "When I returned to Queensland, I did not tell anybody about O'Callaghan's behaviour but a YCW woman mentioned O'Callaghan to me and warned me that he was a molester. However, it was too late because O'Callaghan had already molested me."

Cathy continued her silence for many years but in 1994 she was pleased that she was finally able to discuss the matter with Broken Rites, and she continued to contact Broken Rites occasionally during the next two years.

Cathy said: "This episode with O'Callaghan has had a lasting impact on me. It is still unfinished business. I still feel hurt, and I really should do something about it."

After Cathy's first call, Broken Rites ascertained that O'Callaghan retired from parish work in 1993 and (by 1994) was living in Balwyn (Melbourne) in a villa for retired priests.

Eventually (during 1995) Cathy contacted the Victoria Police sexual offences and child-abuse investigation team but the detectives learned that O'Callaghan had recently died (on 10 January 1995) and therefore the detectives could no longer interview him.

[It is always worthwhile for victims to consider arranging an interview with the police sexual-offences investigators. A complainant can also tackle the church authorities privately in a civil action.]

Other reports

In 1994 Broken Rites received a call from a Melbourne woman, "Suzie", who told Broken Rites: "O'Callaghan molested me at the West Brunswick parish in 1958 when I was 11 years old. I know of five other girls who were also abused by him, including my sister."

And in 1994 Broken Rites also received a call from a Melbourne man, "Philip", who said: "When I was aged 10 at the Spotswood Catholic parish school in Melbourne in 1973, I was indecently touched several times in the school toilets by the parish priest. Father John O'Callaghan. As a priest, he had easy access to the school grounds and he was always hanging around the toilets."

In 1998 Broken Rites received a different kind of report about O'Callaghan from another caller, "Max", who said: "In 1985, when O'Callaghan was at Clayton parish, he resisted a request to baptise my newly-born nephew because this baby was illegitimate — that is, the baby's parents were not married."

Father Paul Willy

John Ignatius O'Callaghan was not the only Melbourne priest who worked in YCW circles. A Melbourne woman, "Jenny" (born in 1951), told Broken Rites in 1993: "When I was 14 or so, I was president of the YCW at a Catholic girls' school in Melbourne. This brought me into close contact with Father Paul Willy who was a chaplain for the YCW Victorian headquarters. Father Willy handled me improperly on several occasions until I managed to end the abuse."

Father Willy, who belonged to the Melbourne archdiocese, was listed as a YCW chaplain in the annual Australian Catholic Directory throughout the 1960s. He was based in the YCW's house on the eastern side of the Caulfield Racecourse. Evidently he later left the priesthood for, by the 1980s, his name disappeared from the annual editions of the directory.

More about Fr John O'Callaghan

In 2014 another Melbourne woman ("Hilda", born in 1943) told Broken Rites had she was active in the YCW and she used to visit the YCW headquarters (near the Cauflield Racecourse) when Fr John O'Callaghan and Fr Paul Willy were located there. She told Broken Rites:

"One day, when I arrived at the two-storey house, Fr Paul Willy told me that Fr O' Callaghan wanted to see me upstairs, but when I got upstairs I found that O'Callaghan was in a dark room. He told me that he had a migraine headache and he needed me to massage him. I quickly sensed that I was in danger and I fled from the room. Some other girl, if she was slower than me to escape, could have been at risk.

"Since then, I have wondered how much Fr Paul Willy knew about Fr John O' Callaghan's activities."

  • Father O'Callaghan had two children

Fr John O'Callaghan had a flexible interpretation of the Catholic Church's public image of a "celibate" (that is, unmarried) priesthood. In the 1980s, according to fellow-priests, O'Callaghan had a private unofficial relationship with a woman, with whom he fathered two daughters.

  • To see more from Broken Rites about Fr John O'Callaghan's de facto marriage, click HERE.