THE Vincentian Catholic order has denied liability for notorious child sex offender priest Brian Spillane's abuse of a Bathurst school student despite Spillane's conviction for the crime, and despite Pope Francis's vow at a Vatican summit that the church would give survivors "all the support they need".
Spillane was "on a frolic of his own" when he indecently assaulted Damien Sheridan, 13, at St Stanislaus College, Bathurst in 1985 after the homesick boy sought help from the school chaplain, the Vincentians said in response to Mr Sheridan's 2018 civil suit, in which the order did not admit the abuse occurred despite Spillane's conviction the previous year.
The Vincentians are also yet to join the National Redress Scheme, after avoiding Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse scrutiny because of the number of outstanding prosecutions against the Vincentian boarding school's former priests, brothers, teachers and lay workers.
A distraught Mr Sheridan, who was subjected to an exorcism and sexual abuse at the school after the priest said he "had the devil in him", accused Catholic leaders including Pope Francis of gross hypocrisy by failing to stop church entities from re-abusing survivors during legal processes.
"Why is anyone allowed to write 'alleged offence' in a legal document months after there's a conviction, and then for that to be sent to someone like me who's suffered the consequences of that abuse for decades? I've made clear the harm done to me and they respond in a way that can only increase that harm," Mr Sheridan said.
"Why did we have a royal commission to stop that kind of thing happening? Why hasn't the Catholic Church done anything to stop survivors being subjected to this? How can the Pope stand up and say the church is going to be more compassionate while this is happening? It's words. Just words. It's always been words with the Catholic Church, and the misuse of power.
"If someone had told me 12 years ago that I'd still be fighting the justice system, the church and the legal processes all these years later, and after his conviction, I'd seriously have thought twice about coming forward at all.
"Justice? What justice when they can still do this?"
Spillane is one of 16 former St Stanislaus College priests/brothers/teachers or lay workers to be the subject of child sex or sexual misconduct allegations, and one of nine to be convicted of offences. Three were acquitted, charges against one were withdrawn because of his age, another was already dead, and the order paid compensation in at least one other case.
Justice? What justice when they can still do this?Child sexual abuse survivor Damien Sheridan
Spillane was sentenced in February, 2017 only weeks before the royal commission's final public hearing. Non-publication orders over St Stanislaus cases prevented the media from naming the college for most of the commission's five years until after Spillane's sentencing. The Newcastle Herald reported the full list of St Stanislaus offenders for the first time in June, 2017 after an application to NSW Justice on behalf of Vincentian survivors including Mr Sheridan.
District Court Judge Robyn Tupman sentenced Spillane, 76, to 13 years' jail for offences against nine St Stanislaus students between 1974 and 1990, with his earliest release date in November, 2026.
Spillane showed no remorse and accepted no responsibility for his offences which were part of an "entrenched course of deliberate conduct" against vulnerable boys, some of whom were "desperately homesick" and sought help from the chaplain, Judge Tupman said.
"Some of the offences involved the offender’s use of religious rituals to increase his power over the victim, including purported exorcisms and involvement in prayer meetings, both of which on the facts at trial were at the very least preambles to sexual abuse. For others he prayed over the child before sexually assaulting him, no doubt in order to create a false sense of security."
Spillane secured one student's silence about the sexual abuse "by reminding him of his mother's illness in a way which I regard as wickedly manipulative", Judge Tupman said.
"The offender was not just any teacher or adviser, but an ordained priest into whose care these parents entrusted their boys, believing that their shared faith would benefit their children. In almost all, if not all of the cases before me, the complainants came from staunchly religious Catholic families who all viewed priests in very high regard," the judge said.
A mediation between Mr Sheridan and the Vincentians in February ended with no settlement, no admission of liability by the Vincentians and a date set in late 2019 for the matter to go before the NSW Supreme Court.
Mr Sheridan wept as he read from the order's response to his statement of claim, in which the Vincentians denied he had "sustained any injury, loss or damage", and suggested the "injuries or losses" could have stemmed from other causes such as "homesickness at the school" or his parents' divorce in 1984.
The response was written only months after Judge Tupman acknowledged the serious impact of the abuse on each of Spillane's victims.
Mr Sheridan left St Stanislaus and completed his schooling at Newcastle where he worked for a number of years and learnt to surf, which was "the only time I really felt free".
Mr Sheridan said he was not surprised the Vincentians had not yet signed up to the National Redress Scheme, after controversy over the St Stanislaus College's formal apology to abuse victims held at the school where the crimes occurred, and on the anniversary of the day the Vincentian's founder was made a saint.
The redress scheme, with payments capped at $150,000, was established for survivors who choose not to pursue matters in court. Mr Sheridan took court action alleging the order had known of Spillane's offending for years before his abuse, and because the school had a duty of care to protect him from its employees.
Mr Sheridan was scathing of how the college’s extensive child sex history was described as “moments of darkness” at a college event in February, 2017 to mark its 150th anniversary, only days after Spillane was sentenced.
“It’s not moments of darkness. It’s 30 years of a well-organised pedophile network. They knew what they were doing,” Mr Sheridan said.
"They've minimised, they've denied responsibility. If you can't admit liability for something happening even after one of your people has been convicted then you're probably going to delay signing up to the National Redress Scheme because it's about accepting responsibility."
Newcastle MP and deputy chair of a Senate committee overseeing the scheme's implementation, Sharon Claydon, said governments "should explore every option available" to ensure all institutions signed up to the National Redress Scheme because "there is nothing in that legislation that is going to force them to come to the table".
"The Federal Government is going down the naming and shaming path at the moment but if that doesn't work then governments should explore every option available," Ms Claydon said.
Institutions like the Catholic Church and orders like the Vincentians needed to ensure their actions matched their rhetoric, she said.
"The question they should be asking is 'How do we support survivors secure access to redress quickly' and not 'How do we protect our assets?'," Ms Claydon said.
"Survivors have had to wait for years and years for some sense of justice. Why the hell are they having to wait a single day longer because of institutions failing to respond?"
NSW Greens MP and justice spokesperson David Shoebridge, who played a key role in the establishment of the royal commission, said Mr Sheridan was expreriencing "the very aggressive litigation style that has brought the church and its various orders into disrepute".
"Despite the rising public anger these people can’t seem to learn. It sickens me that, just like with the Catholic Church and John Ellis, the fact that a child was sexually abused by a member of the order is not in dispute, they just say they don’t want to pay for it," Mr Shoebridge said.
It was always a concern when an organisation where multiple offenders had sexually abused children in the past could not admit responsibility for that abuse in the present, he said.
An organisation that refused to accept liability for the sexual abuse of children in its care should be refused all public money, Mr Shoebridge said.
The Vincentian order did not respond to questions or requests for comment.
St Stanislaus College head Dr Anne Wenham said the Vincentian Fathers and Brothers were legal owners of the school, which "has been assured the Vincentians are undergoing a process that would enable the Vincentians and all their entities, including St Stanislaus College, to enter the Redress Scheme".