The Sydney Morning Herald - Australia December 1, 2010
God help me: former priest found guilty of child abuse
Convicted ... Brian Spillane outside court. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Hospitable families in far-flung places would come to regret opening their homes to Father Brian Spillane, writes David Marr.
As Judge Michael Finnane, QC, pondered what lay ahead for Brian Spillane he remarked: "It is almost unheard of for one person to be involved in so many trials." The former priest was convicted yesterday by a District Court jury on nine counts of indecent assault and the bail hearing that followed heard the former chaplain of St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, faces a further 135 charges to be heard in four more trials that could last until late next year.
Spillane, 67, sat impassive, only occasionally shaking his head, as the jury found him guilty on count after count.
Spillane's victims were three young girls assaulted while he was based in Sydney during a break in his long career at St Stanislaus. The charges Spillane will face in trials next year relate to boys at the school where he taught in the 1970s and again in the late 1980s. He left the priesthood and married in 2004.
In the witness box Spillane described himself as a modern priest, joyful and enthusiastic, a man at ease with families and kids, a hugger and kisser, happy to play a game of tennis and celebrate a home Mass. His victims recalled him bringing his clarinet and Edith Piaf LPs when he came to dinner. His favourite Piaf song was, one victim said, "the one about no regrets".
The Crown prosecutor, Brad Hughes, told the jury: "He would not have been within a bull's roar of these girls if he hadn't been a priest." There was evidence that he had an eye for a broken family, a husband and wife in conflict, a sick mother or an absent father.
He would appear uninvited.
Mrs A found him on her doorstep in a bush town four or five times. She was a pillar of the parish; her husband was in rehab; her boys had been at St Stanislaus. "I always welcomed him."
He was convicted of two counts of sexually assaulting Mrs A's 11- or 12-year-old daughter. One morning, Spillane put her on his knee and touched her vagina.
When the child sprang from his clasp, he held her by the throat, thrust against her and pulled down her pants. At that point her younger sister appeared in the kitchen to see Spillane "pushing my sister up against the oven and she was struggling and he let go when I ran in and she grabbed me and we ran out of the house and I was terrified. He was hurting her."
Next year he will face charges involving the girl's two brothers.
Spillane was a gregarious, heavy-set, 36-year-old with pale red hair when the Vincentian Order brought him down from the bush in 1979.
His job was to lead the priests and brothers at the Vincentians' compound in suburban Marsfield. Within months he was also acting parish priest in the order's local church.
He liked to play with the children at the order's primary school before the bell rang for class. "They would come running up and take me by the hand and come up and, you know, give me a hug," he told the court. "It was just a very open and welcoming joyful moment for them and for me." In answer to his counsel, Philip Boulten, SC, he told the court he touched children "on their shoulder, perhaps on their head and on their hand. I'd allow my hands to be available to them."
During confession he would invite children as young as eight to sit on his lap. "It was my pastoral approach,'' he told the court, "to break down the barrier between the fearful God and the loving God." One former penitent gave evidence of him holding her tightly on his lap as he nuzzled into her neck. "What I felt was some little kisses."
The jury failed to agree on two charges relating to this 12-year- old child.
Spillane cultivated the Ls, a family in the parish. The devout mother hoped the priest might persuade her reluctant husband to attend Mass. Their daughters gave evidence that Spillane came to dinner more than 30 times in those years, usually bringing whisky for the father, chocolates for the mother and pink sugared peanuts for them. At the time they were aged eight and 10.
Spillane has been convicted of six counts of abusing the younger daughter while he was in her bedroom, ostensibly to hear her prayers. The assaults began with little pecks on the cheek which became forced tongue kissing and, according to the evidence, progressed over months until Spillane was lying on top of the child.
Her older sister told the court the priest was also assaulting her: "I can still taste the Scotch in my mouth and I can feel the stubble of him on my face."
Spillane took great risks. The court heard some of the children complained to their parents in the vague terms a deeply embarrassed child might use. One or two parents set bounds on Spillane's access. None took decisive action. No evidence was tendered at the trial to suggest the police were ever called or the Vincentians alerted.
From January 1981 Spillane joined a "renewal team" led by the provincial of the order, Father Keith Turnbull, which visited Vincentian parishes around Australia promoting what Spillane called "the teachings and the spirit of the Second Vatican Council". The priest was on the road for the next three years, but his base remained Marsfield and the evidence suggests he never lost touch with the parish.
Hospitable families in far-flung places opened their homes to him. He said Mass in their sitting rooms, played tennis with their children and, according to the evidence, abused their daughters. The court heard that staying with a family in a Queensland town one night, he climbed into the bed of their 15-year-old daughter then lay and ejaculated on her. He did not face charges over this allegation.
Spillane was also conducting retreats for girls at a Sydney Catholic school. On one of these retreats in the Blue Mountains he met two 17-year-olds, T and her best friend.
The day after the friend was killed in a car crash, Spillane turned up uninvited at T's house to celebrate a home Mass for the distraught young woman and her friends. Later he asked T to come with him to his car parked out of sight of the house.
Spillane was convicted of one count of sexually assaulting T there. "He slid his hand up under my skirt," she told the court. "I was, by this time, weeping, crying and saying no, and he slid his hand all the way up under my skirt and grabbed my crotch and groin area, my underwear". She fled from the car.
Spillane's first trial lasted the whole of November. The jury - reduced by illness to 10 members - took nearly four days to reach its verdict. On Monday, they found Spillane guilty of three charges. Yesterday, they added a further six convictions.
The bail hearing that began immediately heard that Spillane was arrested in May 2008 following an investigation that had begun in Bathurst some years before. In time, the number of complainants grew to 31, all but four of them former pupils of St Stanislaus.
A notice of prosecution case presented during the bail hearing details allegations by 44 former pupils of St Stanislaus of fondling, kissing, masturbation, fellatio and anal penetration by Spillane. Many of the 44 speak of loneliness and homesickness at the school. Many allege sexual abuse by Spillane during prayer sessions.
Spillane was refused bail. As he was led away to the cells he called: "Please God, help me." His solicitor, Greg Walsh, has told the Herald that Spillane intends to appeal.
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