A young female victim defeats the church's lawyers, with help from Broken Rites

  • By a Broken Rites researcher

If a victim of clergy sexual abuse wishes to sue the Catholic Church for damages, the victim’s chances of success are much greater if he/she can demonstrate that the church knew previously that the offender was a sexual abuser. It is usually difficult for the victim to prove this. This article is an example of a case in which the church could not evade its liability. In early 2007, a 23-year-old woman ("Emily") won a victory over the Catholic Church’s lawyers. Emily forced the church to pay her a substantial civil settlement for having had her life damaged by a Catholic priest, Father Kevin Howarth, in Victoria.

Emily had complained that Fr Kevin Howarth, a priest of the Sandhurst diocese in north-eastern Victoria, committed multiple indecent assaults against her in the early 1990s when she was about six years old.

The Sandhurst diocese extends across north-eastern Victoria from the city of Bendigo (the diocese's headquarters) to the city of Wodonga.

How Broken Rites helped

Emily was not Howarth's first victim. Broken Rites informed Emily that in 1984 Howarth had admitted molesting two sisters in another family in the Sandhurst diocese. However, the diocese successfully covered up the 1984 complaint and allowed Howarth to continue ministering. Thus, the diocese knowingly inflicted Howarth on other potential victims — including Emily in the early 1990s.

Therefore, when Emily eventually launched civil action against the Sandhurst diocese, her lawyers knew that she had a powerful case, because of the church's prior knowledge about Howarth.

Usually, acting on legal advice, the Catholic Church claims that it "did not know" that Father So-and-So was a danger to children. In the Howarth case, however, the church was caught with its pants down.

The 1980s background

According to Broken Rites records, Father Howarth was ministering in the Corryong parish (in north-eastern Victoria) when (according to his own admissions) he sexually abused two young sisters there during 17 months in 1982-83. The offences began when the girls were aged 11 and 8. Later, the parents learned about the abuse and they complained to the Sandhurst diocese in 1984. More than a decade after this, one of the girls (then aged in her twenties) notified the police. In early 1996, the police charged Howarth with indecent assault.

In Wangaratta Magistrates Court on 17 October 1996, Father Kevin Howarth (then aged 59) pleaded guilty to the indecent assault charges. There were numerous incidents but he was charged with three counts of indecent assault on the elder sister and two on the younger sister. The girls were not required to attend court.

The court was told that, before the assaults, the family had taken Howarth into their home, their lives and their trust.

In one of the offences, Howarth made one of the girls masturbate him in the back seat of a car while Howarth spoke to the girls' unsuspecting parents in the front seat.

Howarth touched one of the girls indecently while baby-sitting her in the Corryong presbytery.

Other offences occurred in the family home and in a swimming pool.

Prosecutor Senior Constable Tim Edgeworth told the court that the parents complained to the church about the elder daughter in 1984. Howarth's bishop, Bishop Noel Daly of the Sandhurst diocese, was made aware of the complaint.

However, the church persuaded the family to keep quiet to "help Father Howarth". The parents were told that the girl "would get over it as she is only young."

Howarth was allowed to continue in the ministry. His later parishes were not warned that he was a risk to children.

For the two Corryong sisters, the trauma never went away. By 1995, when the two girls were in their twenties, church sex-abuse had become a public issue — largely due to extensive media publicity generated by Broken Rites from 1993 onwards.

The prosecution told the court that one of the girls finally reported the crimes to the Victoria Police in September 1995 during "Operation Paradox", an annual phone-in for victims of sexual abuse. The diocese did not remove Howarth from his parish until April 1996 when police charges were imminent. Clearly, without the police charges, the church would have allowed Howarth to continue ministering in the Sandhurst diocese forever.

Howarth's lawyer, requesting a lenient sentence, said that the Catholic Church was the only adult life that Howarth had known.

Magistrate Ian McGrane told Howarth: "The offences are so horrendous that one finds it hard to deal with them because of the position in society that you had and the trust people installed in you."

The court sentenced Howarth to three months' imprisonment. The court allowed this to be served as an intensive correction order in the community. Howarth was ordered to attend the community corrections office for 12 hours a week, including eight hours of community work and four hours of counselling. Howarth was also fined $2,000.

After the 1996 conviction

Just before Howarth appeared in court, Broken Rites had alerted the media. Therefore, the court case was reported on WIN regional television news and on the front page of both the Albury Border Mail and the Wangaratta Chronicle.

The girls' parent told the media: "We invited 'God's man' into our house but all he did was bring grief and so much unhappiness over so many years. We cannot believe how he was ever allowed to locate in another parish even though his superiors at the Sandhurst diocese admitted that he had a problem."

Father Gerry Callagher, Sandhurst diocese spokesman on professional standards, told the media that any further victims should ring the church's psychologist in Melbourne for counselling. (The statement did not mention contacting the police.)

The Albury Border Mail reported: "When asked why Howarth was allowed to continue serving in parishes around the district despite a complaint in 1984, Fr Gallagher was not prepared to comment."

It is not known where Howarth went after his conviction. His lawyer told the court that Howarth hoped the church would give him administrative duties after the conviction. The Sandhurst diocese continued to list him as one of its priests in the annual Australian Catholic Directory in 1997, 1998 and 1999. It said Howarth was "on leave" from the ministry, care of the Bendigo diocesan office — indicating that the church was not prepared to remove this child-sex offender from the priesthood altogether.

The priest's background

Researching Father Howarth's whole career, Broken Rites checked some (but not all) of the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory, and we found that, in various years, Father Kevin Howarth was listed as being based in Sandhurst Diocese parishes such as Euroa, Wangaratta, Bright, Corryong, Wodonga, Beechworth and Chiltern. The Sandhurst diocese covers a total of three dozen parishes in north-eastern Victoria, and it is possible that Howarth did some ministering also in other Sandhurst Diocese parishes such as Numurkah, Cohuna and Rushworth.

A Euroa parishioner told Broken Rites: "Howarth worked in the Euroa parish about 1969-70. At some time, he also ministered in an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, which raises some alarming possibilities."

The case of Emily

"Emily" lived with her family in north eastern Victoria. (To protect Emily's privacy, Broken Rites is not revealing the name of the town.) Emily's parents and siblings were all involved in Catholic Church affairs, including fund-raising.

Emily encountered Fr Kevin Howarth in the early 1990s when she was a pupil in the infant grades at Fr Howarth's parish primary school. During the next year or so, Howarth began molesting Emily. The offences occurred inside the church. Howarth used to take Emily into the sacristy (the priest's room adjacent to the altar) ostensibly to "prepare" her for her First Holy Communion. This "preparation" took the form of sexual abuse.

About 2000, Emily was still disturbed by Howarth's abuse and his breach of trust. She learned that the Catholic Church in Australia was inviting church sex-abuse victims to contact the church's Professional Standards office (also known as "Towards Healing"). Emily did this but (like most victims) she found that Towards Healing was evasive and defensive.

In 2003, Emily phoned Broken Rites. We informed her about Howarth's 1996 court conviction. Realising that Emily had a powerful case, Broken Rites sent her our printed information about Howarth's 1996 conviction and we advised her to consult lawyers instead of bothering any longer with Towards Healing.

The legal firm that Emily consulted was delighted to receive the Broken Rites information and they prepared a civil claim against the Catholic Church. The claim was aimed at:

  • the trustees of the Sandhurst diocese;
  • the former bishop of Sandhurst (Bishop Noel Daly, but he died in January 2004);
  • the next bishop of Sandhurst (Bishop Joseph Grech);
  • the Catholic Education Office in the Sandhurst diocese;
  • a religious order of nuns who operated Fr Howarth's parish primary school; and
  • a nun (Sister G, the school principal) who had been been responsible for allowing Emily and other children to attend private sessions with Father Howarth).

Emily also would have included Fr Kevin Howarth as a defendant, but the church's lawyers said that Howarth had died (and was buried in the Wangaratta cemetery)

The church lawyers fought Emily's lawyers fiercely. Finally, in 2007, realising the strength of Emily's case, the church agreed to a substantial out-of-court settlement as the church did not wish to have its negligence publicly aired in court.

It had taken Emily seven years to achieve this settlement from when she first approached Towards Healing. Thus, the evasiveness by Towards Healing ended up in a very expensive lesson for the church.

And the big payout also taught the church that it is unwise to harbour and protect any clergy who are a danger to children.

Because of the information provided by Broken Rites about Howarth's record, Emily's case was unusually powerful. Other victims might not be so fortunate and, in many cases, the only outcome is a discounted settlement through Towards Healing.