Investigative Feature

Prakruti Koratagere


The tragic story of one parish's experience

It’s a pleasantly windy afternoon, and the trees sway gently outside St Brigid’s Catholic Church in Healesville. The brick walls stand sturdy and clean with freshly repainted doors and windows, and the verdure surrounding the small cathedral is picturesque. A little girl in her school uniform sits on the compound in the shadow of the building, waiting to be picked up. The church itself looks harmless; providing a tranquil escape for people who want to refresh their souls with spirituality and religion. But not everyone knows that this parish has fallen prey to two successive paedophile priests over a span of ten years.

Father David Daniel, a priest from the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese, repeatedly committed sexual crimes on children throughout his 20-year career as a priest. The police located six of Father Daniel’s victims - four boys, one girl and one adult male, although the total number is still unknown. Of these, three were his own nephews and one his niece; all aged between six-nine years when the assaults began.

“He came to the Healesville Parish in 1990 as an assistant priest. He was an absolute pig of a man. I should’ve seen it right from the start, but I didn’t,” said Ian Lewis, father of five children, one of whom had been sexually abused by David Daniel.

“He always spent enormous amounts of time with boys during confession. When David Daniel began regularly training ‘Scott’ as an altar boy, we were all very happy thinking he was the ‘chosen one’; so much so that Scott idolised him and wanted to be a priest when he grew up. Little did we know what was really going on. Daniel started sexually abusing Scott right from the start in 1990 when he was just 10 years old, and this went on till he was 14. He never told us anything, but his entire personality started changing gradually.”

Scott, who was Daniel’s fifth victim, began to have frequent nosebleeds and severe migraines, coupled with anger issues that his parents just couldn’t understand. After Ian read a magazine article about a molested child, he wanted to broach the topic with Scott, but his wife told him she had already asked Scott and received a negative response.

‘Paula’ recalled, “He used to punch walls for the silliest reasons, and he broke his hand twice in fits of rage. We found out what happened only after Scott moved out of home at 18; his eldest sister asked him where all that anger came from, and he replied ‘Maybe it started when David Daniel used to put his hands in my pants.’ Even though it was four years later, we knew something had to be done.”

So they told the first authority they could think of – the local priest. But when Ian and Paula approached Father Robert Coghlan, they were simply told that David Daniel “had a reputation for this kind of thing”. Meanwhile, Daniel had quietly resigned from the Parish after Christmas in 1994 citing bad health as the reason. In fact, the real reason was that his latest victim, a young Healesville adult aged 26, complained to his parents when Daniel tried assaulting him in the presbytery before Christmas, who then took the matter to the diocesan authorities, thus ensuring Daniel’s game was up.

However, Daniel’s heinous crimes were not confined to the church alone; he preyed on children in St Brigid’s Primary School as well. Pam Christie taught at the school for 17 years before allegedly losing her job for voicing her concerns about child safety in church. Recalling what David Daniel was like as a person, she said, “He was a really obnoxious and condescending man; a megalomaniac in fact.”

“I taught Grades 5 and 6, and he would always walk into classes unannounced, expecting everyone to stand up for the entire time that he was there; he would just disrupt the class by talking about random things. He made comments to the kids like ‘I hate old people, they smell,’ and he was just really offensive! Once, when an aboriginal choirgirl was announced the winner of a raffle at the school fete, he remarked, ‘Oh, not that abo w***e,’!”

When asked if she recognised the signs or noticed anything fishy, Pam replied with a pained look on her face, “No, I didn’t realise anything. The other teachers and I knew that he spent an unusually long time with boys in confession and training them to be altar boys; he sometimes even took them out to the garden at the back of the school where hardly anyone used to be there. Looking back I think ‘How could I not have seen it?’ and I really regret having allowed that b*****d near my innocent kids.”

Though Pam and several other teachers complained to the Principal about his behaviour, nothing changed. So when David Daniel suddenly decided to resign in ’94, they were puzzled but secretly thrilled. It was only four years later with Scott’s revelation that the truth came out. But when the news broke, the staff were not allowed to talk about it; discussing the issue in classrooms with the students or their parents was forbidden.

However, it was not until David Daniel’s mother died that the first four victims decided to come forward and lodge an official police complaint in April 1999. They had been unwilling to take action till then because their grandmother (David Daniel’s mother) was a devout Catholic; and once the complaint was lodged and investigations began, Scott, who was 19 years old then, joined the court proceedings too.

In the year 2000, Father David Daniel was convicted by the Melbourne Magistrates Court for 16 counts of indecent assault, gross indecency, and indecent acts involving children, and was sentenced to imprisonment. He got off with a six year jail-term because he requested a lenient sentence and submitted a ‘character’ reference from Bishop Hilton Deakin, the auxiliary bishop in charge of Melbourne's eastern suburbs.

But by then the damage had been done. Scott had been psychologically and emotionally scarred for life, and he and his family stopped going to church or believing in religion. One night, as Ian sat leafing through some court documents, the realisation dawned on him that at the time David Daniel was baptising Ian’s baby daughter, he had already molested Scott. In a moment of uncontrollable anger, the blood vessels in his left eye burst, causing him to lose his sight in that eye permanently. 

A second blow

While the Healesville Parish was still recovering from the atrocities committed by David Daniel, barely six years later, along came Father Paul Pavlou. He was sent to serve in the Healesville Parish and at St Brigid’s school in late 2005, and quickly started befriending the children at school. And this time, Pam recognised the signs.

“I began observing him in February 2006, and he behaved just like Daniel; he was only interested in the boys, spent long hours in confession with them, and he refused to train girls to serve at the altar. He had a penchant for boys with blonde hair. His strategy was to target lonely boys, and instead of encouraging them to mingle with others, he would spend time with them alone, playing chess and other one-on-one games. At this point, alarm bells started going off in my head,” she said.

After Daniel’s conviction, Pam was so traumatised that she began seeing a counsellor for a few months. This prompted everyone’s disbelief in her aspersions about Paul Pavlou; so when Pam approached her colleagues and the new Principal about her concerns, she was shot down as being ‘paranoid’. This resulted in Pam having a nervous breakdown, and she was advised to talk to Maria Kirkwood, one of the Deputy Directors for Religious Education and liaison between the Archdiocese and the school system.

When Pam did so, Maria allegedly told her on several occasions that “your personal problems are affecting your professional judgement”, and when Pam asked for a counsellor, Maria allegedly said that Carelink did not provide counselling for secondary victims.

Meanwhile, the Principal wanted Pam to start handling children’s parents with enquiries about the sexual abuse during Parent-Teacher Meetings. Both Maria and the Principal apparently forbade her from speaking of her concerns to anyone; so Pam refused, saying, “You’re basically telling me that I can’t go back to that class,” to which Maria allegedly said, “In that case, we’re going to lose a good teacher.”

Consequently, Pam left St Brigid’s in June 2006, just before Pavlou’s victim disclosed his abuse in October that same year. A complaint was lodged and a case was started; when in 2009, Father Paul Pavlou pleaded guilty in the Melbourne Magistrates Court to one charge of committing an indecent act with a 14-year-old boy and another charge of possessing child pornography. Both these offences were thought to have occurred from 2005-2006, and Pavlou was sentenced to 18 months in jail and 50 hours of community service.

The parish hushed up everything

In both, Daniel’s and Pavlou’s cases, the victims contacted Broken Rites Australia, a non-profit organization started by and for victims of church-related sexual abuse. Broken Rites Honorary Research Consultant Dr Bernard believes that each victim needs to tackle the church with a demand for compensation. “It is best if the victim engages a lawyer to tackle the church on his/her behalf, thereby seeking an appropriate amount of compensation. However, the church has a system whereby it offers the victim a small discounted amount, provided that the victim signs a settlement Deed, giving up his/her right to sue the church for the more appropriate amount,” he said.

Subsequently, the question arises: what did the church authorities do? One parishioner told Dr Bernard that even after Father Daniel was jailed, the Melbourne Archdiocese was slow to offer help to the affected families. Some parish activists urged the church authorities to call a general meeting of the parish's families.

The parishioner, who does not wish to be named, recalled, “The church authorities eventually (and grudgingly) called a meeting but it was deliberately not widely advertised or discussed, and a woman from the Melbourne Catholic education office attended the meeting on behalf of the archdiocese. She told the meeting that the David Daniel matter has happened and that everybody should get on with their lives. She offered to arrange counselling for those present but she was not interested in the fact that many others needed to be informed.

“The parish hushed up everything. No one reached out to the families of other possible victims, and some families just stopped coming to church. I and a few others wanted to call a meeting of the Parish so we asked to Priest who agreed, but then the Bishop heard about it and forbid us from meeting on Parish Property, saying instead that he would hold a ‘healing’ mass.”

Ian Lewis sent several letters to then Bishop Hilton Deakin and Archbishop Dennis Hart requesting a meeting, but they all went unanswered. He even wrote and posted a letter to the Pope, but that too went unrecognized. “I think the biggest insult came from our Melbourne Archdiocese Vicar-General, Bishop Les Tomlinson, who has never in anyway replied to our letter and I find it absolutely disgusting that he refuses to acknowledge an open letter delivered to him by three victims of clergy sexual abuse: one teacher who lost her job, the mother of Pavlou’s victim and myself,” said Ian.

However, just recently, the Melbourne Archdiocese defrocked Paul Pavlou and several others (not including David Daniel). Also, the Healesville and Lilydale Parishes introduced new abuse prevention policies earlier this year. The child protection policies outline acceptable and unacceptable behaviour by church members towards children and the vulnerable, and are partly aimed at healing rifts caused by priests Daniel and Pavlou in Healesville.

Father Julian Langridge, who spearheaded the formation of the policies, explained at the time that the new policies allowed community intervention of unacceptable behaviour without judgment or accusation, clearly outlining what was and was not allowed.

On the other hand, Ian believes that the policies are not really concerned with protecting children; they are concerned with protecting the church. “The policies still leave too much power in the hands of the church. We need intervention to come from outside of it. Though the guidelines are a bit of a step in the right direction, they could also give people a false sense of security because the first contact is still a priest. I just don’t want to see any other family go through what we’ve had to,” he said.

Pam finds it very ironic that Father Langridge wants to incorporate policies about sex-abuse in the church, especially after he and Maria Kirkwood forbade her from talking to the children and their parents from St Brigid’s Primary after Pavlou’s conviction. ”Father Julian has issued these new guidelines in the parish without much sought after consultation with Healesville victim's families. Our efforts to have a parish meeting regarding these matters have been consistently refused by the priests and parish leaders since 2006 when Pavlou was stood down. I was even offered money by the Catholic Education Office to stop talking/critiquing them, but I refused,” said Pam.

Meanwhile, the Church still remains mum on the issue. Maria Kirkwood, Father Langridge and Archbishop Dennis Hart all declined to comment. And although time may help diminish some of the pain, these are wounds that will never fully heal.

[NOTE – The names of some of the people mentioned in this article have been changed to protect identities.]