I WAS in the foyer of Sydney’s Downing Centre Court after a day of evidence in one of the child sex trials against Catholic priest David O’Hearn.
There have been so many trials, re-trials and hearings since he was first stood down in May 2008 that I can’t remember exactly which one it was.
I didn’t pay much attention to a group across the foyer until their conversation became animated. Suddenly a woman walked quickly towards me. She was upset. I asked if she was okay. She asked if I would walk with her out of the court because the people she had been talking to would still be outside. She didn’t want to face them again on her own.
They were supporters of O’Hearn. She had been friendly with the priest, but was shocked after hearing evidence of his crimes. There were heated words after she said she believed the victims.
I walked her out. There was a group outside the court but no one said a word. They just glared.
The case of David O’Hearn has highlighted why we needed a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. He is in jail awaiting sentence after separate juries found him guilty of 44 child sex offences against six victims, but the cost to the community including victims, their families, O’Hearn’s supporters and the justice system has been extraordinary.
There might be some justice in the guilty findings, but his case has been a draining example of the limitations of criminal courts when dealing with historic child sex cases. More than six men made allegations against O’Hearn, and their allegations about the way O’Hearn sexually abused them was consistent with allegations where the priest was convicted, but the passage of time is always a hurdle in these cases. Sometimes it’s insurmountable.
O’Hearn sought leave to appeal to the High Court in 2011 before his trials started. He argued for separate trials for each of six victims rather than combined trials. He was first convicted in a trial in 2012 with multiple victims. He appealed and there was a retrial. He was again found guilty.
Last Friday a jury returned three not guilty verdicts in the final trial involving one victim. Those jury members would only learn after that decision that O’Hearn had already been found guilty of similar crimes against six other boys.
There were complaints about the funding of O’Hearn’s defence almost from day one. I have a letter from 2008 written by an angry Catholic who said “O’Hearn and his supporters have touted for contributions towards his legal costs for some months”.
“I along with many others received an unsolicited email message containing banking details and/or an address to which a donation towards his defence could be sent,” the angry Catholic wrote.
It also offended the angry Catholic’s craw when Legal Aid, rather than the Catholic Church, picked up the tab for at least some of O’Hearn’s defence.
O’Hearn’s grandstanding in the dock for his supporters was the subject of a formal complaint by the mother of one of his victims. I saw it first hand on a number of occasions and it was disturbing.
Child sex offenders groom children, but in many cases they groom adults first. People ask why children did not report allegations in the past. There are many reasons, but master manipulators like David O’Hearn knew the value of charming their way into positions of trust with adults.
For child victims it was just the first almost insurmountable hurdle.