A Catholic priest, who was in charge of preparing future priests, sexually abused a child

By a Broken Rites researcher

A Catholic priest who was in charge of preparing candidates for the priesthood in Tasmania has been jailed for multiple indecent assaults of a naive young church-going girl. The priest, Father Paul Anthony Connolly, was listed as a Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Hobart in the annual Australian Catholic directories until the police caught up with him in 2000.

After the priest finished his jail sentence, the Hobart archdiocese declared in 2002 that Father Connolly was "still a priest". And, even after his conviction, the archdiocese was providing Father Connolly with a car, from the church's fleet, for his personal use.

In August 2001 Father Paul Anthony Connolly, then aged 66, pleaded guilty in the Tasmanian Supreme Court to seven incidents of indecent assault between 1971 and 1973.

35 years in the priesthood

The court was told that Father Paul Connolly was ordained in 1965 and his first posting was St Peter's parish at New Norfolk, near Hobart. It was there that he met the victim, then aged nine, through her family, who were devout members of the congregation.

Connolly was transferred to Strathgordon (a hydro-electric construction community in Tasmania's south-west) in 1971 and the assaults occurred when the girl visited him there several times, aged 14 to 16, between 1971 and 1973 — first on a Christian students camp and later with her siblings.

His offences included undressing her, taking her to his bed, touching her body all over, including her genitals, and washing her naked body in the shower.

On one of the visits, the girl was accompanied by her siblings. Connolly, then aged 36, removed the victim from the bedroom she was sharing with her sister and took her to his own bed.

Prosecutor John Ransom said the girl was a highly spiritual Catholic who, at the time of the offences, believed it was right to do what a priest said. She was also very naive, with little sex education. It was a sustained series of sexual assaults by a person in a position of trust that had a long-term impact on the victim and her family, the prosecutor said.

The offences were revealed in late 2000 when the victim (then aged 44) told her husband. He confronted Connolly, who admitted the offences. Police were contacted.

The victim was accompanied to court by her husband.

A sexual assault worker's report to the court said: "(The victim) expresses the view that his (Connolly's) actions took away her innocence, that this can never be regained and the thoughts leave her with a deep sense of loss."

Justice Pierre Slicer sentenced Connolly to eight months' jail and suspended four months of this.

The court was told that Connolly, being a friend of the victim's family, naturally officiated at the victim's wedding in 1983. Justice Slicer said this caused a dilemma for the victim as it would have been difficult for her to reject this expectation.

Broken Rites research

In the late 1970s, after being at Strathgordon, Connolly was the Parish Priest in charge of St Colman's church at Ellendale (now part of the Central Tasmania parish). Connolly also did stints at Sandy Bay and Oatlands. By the 1980s, he was the Parish Priest in the town of St Mary's (the parish of St Mary of the Assumption) on Tasmania's east coast, where he remained until the police interviewed him in 2000.

The Official Directory of the Catholic Church in Australia, 2000 edition (before Connolly was convicted), said (on page 145) that Father Paul Connolly was one of three priests listed as being responsible for "Vocations" (that is, preparing candidates for the priesthood) in Tasmania.

No parish, but 'still a priest'

Immediately after Connolly's conviction in 2001, a church spokeswoman told the media that the archdiocese had relieved Connolly of his parish duties when the case became a police matter in December 2000. However, the spokeswoman said that, despite the conviction, Connolly was still a priest and (she said) the church has no process to remove him from the priesthood (Launceston Examiner, 7 August 2001). [That is, the Hobart Archdiocese could merely refrain from giving him a parish appointment in that archdiocese.]

In 2002, after the conviction, the annual Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy (published by the National Council of Priests) continued to list Connolly as a priest of the Hobart archdiocese (although retired from permanent parish appointments). This listing continued in the 2006 edition. This kind of listing in the Directory often indicates that such a priest, with no permanent parish appointment, could still be available for casual ceremonies or for casual relief ministry.

A car and other benefits

In June 2002, Hobart Archbishop Adrian Doyle confirmed that, since the priest's release from prison, the church was providing Connolly (in 2002) with a car for his personal use, although he no longer had parish duties. Doyle said the car was from a pool of vehicles set aside for retired priests (Hobart Mercury, 6 June 2002). The car was reported to be a Toyota Camry sedan.

The Hobart Mercury quoted Broken Rites as commenting on behalf of the victim: "The victim and her family are horrified to hear that Connolly was rewarded with a car. Victims of church abuse see the church comforting an offender, whereas the victim is considered an outsider. This family has lost faith in this Archbishop's ability to look after their spiritual needs."

A church spokesman said that Connolly (after finishing his jail sentence) was receiving benefits of $9,000 a year (including rent subsidies) from church funds, as well as being entitled to the Commonwealth age pension (Launceston Examiner, 7 June 2002). [It is not known if the Department of Social Security is aware of such arrangements.]

Archbishop Doyle also confirmed to the media that the church has made settlement payout to the victim.

[Father Connolly's name has sometimes been mis-spelt as Paul Anthony Connelly.]