Ex-bishop Heenan grilled for supporting pedophile priest

WHEN pedophile priest Father Reginald Durham was charged with sexually abusing children, his leader Bishop Brian Heenan wrote him a glowing character reference.

The former Catholic Bishop of Rockhampton (Fr Heenan) believed it was his role at the time to support his priest, knowing full-well there were child sex abuse allegations against Fr Durham.

In yesterday's Royal Commission hearing into child sexual abuse at Neerkol Orphanage, it emerged that Fr Heenan wrote the letter of reference to support his priest's "good" side.


>> Demons return on day one of Neerkol Orphanage hearing

>> Witness retells harrowing experience at Neerkol Orphanage

The commission heard Fr Heenan was trying to weigh-up the "incredible amount of good he (Fr Durham) has done against the failings that have also been part of his life".

In his reference letter, he wrote: "Fr Durham has had a unique life as a citizen of this district, priest to many parish communities, chaplain to service personnel and inspiring friend to young and old alike."

In a second reference, Fr Heenan referred to his priest as having a "unique gift with youth".

Allegations of child sex abuse by Fr Durham at the orphanage were put to Fr Heenan in the early 1990s.

By then, about 1993, Fr Durham had retired from his post as the priest of Neerkol Parish, but remained as a resident at the orphanage presbytery.

Fr Heenan, who was Bishop from 1991 to 2013, was the one who allowed him to stay there.

In the meantime, Fr Durham was still heavily involved with parishioners in the area, including children.

He had stepped down into an administrative role for the diocese.

One sexual abuse victim wrote to Fr Heenan expressing her concern about Fr Durham still being able to work in a position where he had access to children.

The commission heard no action was taken against the former Neerkol priest at that time.

Truth, Justice and Healing Council chief executive Frances Sullivan and former Bishop of Rockhampton Brian Heenan leave the Rockhampton Courthhouse. Photo Austin King / The Morning Bulletin
Truth, Justice and Healing Council chief executive Frances Sullivan and former Bishop of Rockhampton Brian Heenan leave the Rockhampton Courthhouse. Photo Austin King / The Morning Bulletin Austin King

It took three years for the former Bishop of Rockhampton to "restrict" Fr Durham's access to children.

More sexual abuse victims came forward in the 1990s and that's when the Bishop decided to take action.

In September 1996, Fr Heenan raised his shields to defend the Rockhampton Catholic Diocese and stated the allegations about Neerkol were "scurrilous" and "slanderous".

He distributed a statement in the parish newsletter and to media organisations.

It wasn't until about 1997 that Fr Heenan dismissed his priest from his position... "when the criminal nature of the charges became quite public".

Fr Heenan withdrew his original comments and apologised for them.

He told the commission he did not act on the allegations because he was trying to protect the reputation of the church.

He said he also "could have been trying" to put off former residents from coming forward with sexual abuse allegations, to stop further damage to the church's reputation.

Fr Heenan also acknowledged he didn't respond to claims made by former Neerkol resident David Owen until Bishop Malone of the Maitland Newcastle region responded to a letter sent by Mr Owen.

The former Rockhampton Bishop moved to the region in 1991.

He did not have any training in respect of sexual assault allegations, the commission heard.

"Sadly sex abuse was rising at the time and there was no adequate preparation until the reality began to dawn," Fr Heenan said.

Fr Heenan was ordained in 1962. He helped other priests in the archdiocese of Brisbane before becoming the parish priest of Zillmere.

It emerged that Fr Heenan had known Fr Durham for about 45 years.

Fr Heenan said he was an army cadet when he first crossed paths with Fr Durham, who was an army chaplain at the time. Despite this, he said he did not consider Fr Durham a friend.

"I am sorry for my actions then... if I could change the past, I would," Fr Heenan said.

Following yesterday's hearing, former Neerkol Orphanage resident Margaret Campbell came out of the Rockhampton Courthouse partly pleased with the former bishop's testimony.

She believed he should be forgiven for his statements regarding the sexual abuse allegations. The hearing continues on Monday.