How these church victims defeated a cover-up, with help from Broken Rites
Broken Rites Australia helps victims of church-related sex-abuse, including victims of Father Desmond Gannon.
By a Broken Rites researcher
Since 1993, Broken Rites has been researching the story of prominent Melbourne Catholic priest Father Desmond Gannon. who has been sentenced five times (in 1995, 1997, 2000, 2003 and 2009) for sexual crimes against children.
When Broken Rites launched its Australia-wide telephone hotline in 1993, we began hearing from men who were former altar boys of Father Des Gannon. Gradually, one by one, some of these callers then exercised their right to obtain justice.
The Gannon story has two lessons for all church-abuse victims:-
- The Gannon story demonstrates how specialist police officers, from the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (SOCA) unit, can help victims to obtain justice. Gannon had molested boys from the time he was ordained in 1956 but the church culture managed to cover up his crimes. Finally, in 1993-94, some of his victims contacted the SOCA police (instead of the church) and this shattered the cover-up.
- The Gannon story also demonstrates how the media can help victims. The news of Gannon’s first court appearance, in 1995, showed other Gannon victims (and also victims of other clergy) that they could safely end their silence, while still maintaining their privacy. This led to Gannon’s second, third, fourth and fifth court appearances. The media coverage helped to promote public awareness about the importance of child protection.
Gannon was jailed in 1995 (spending 12 months in jail) and again in 2009 (when he was jailed for a minimum of 14 months).
Broken Rites research
Desmond Laurence Gannon was born on 27 August 1929. His father worked in the Melbourne tramways. Des Gannon completed Year 11 at school and then worked in the Commonwealth Bank for three years. He entered the Melbourne seminary at age 21, slightly older than average in those days.
Gannon was ordained on 22 June 1956. By searching through the annual Australian Catholic directories, Broken Rites has ascertained that Fr Des Gannon ministered in the following Melbourne parishes: Glenhuntly 1957-62, Alphington 1962-65, Braybrook 1965-66, Ashburton 1966-67, St Kilda East 1968, Kilmore 1968-71, Braybrook again 1971-79 and Macleod-Rosanna 1980-93.
How the Gannon case began
Broken Rites researchers, who were present throughout Gannon’s court proceedings, have compiled the following summary.
Before 1993, victims of church sexual abuse would often either remain silent or, perhaps, merely tell the church, rather than the police. But by 1993-94, victims increasingly contacted the SOCA police, instead of the church.
In 1993 and early 1994, four men (from different parishes and acting separately) notified the SOCA unit about having been molested by Father Desmond Gannon when they were boys. After the victims had been interviewed by the SOCA unit, an investigation was conducted in the Caulfield criminal investigation unit (by Detective Senior Constable Rick Pennington). The detectives interviewed Gannon, who said he wanted to talk to a lawyer before addressing the allegations.
One of these complainants (“Peter“, who was aged 48 in 1993), was seeing a private counsellor about Gannon-related issues. Peter, who was acquainted with senior clerics of the Melbourne archdiocese, asked the archdiocese in 1993 to pay the counselling fees.
The archdiocese, aware that the Gannon issue could escalate, agreed to begin paying the counsellor. Furthermore, fearing public exposure, the archdiocese arranged for Gannon to go “on leave” from his Macleod-Rosanna parish. The parishioners were not told the reason why Father Des was leaving — they were told (falsely) that he was leaving for “health” reasons.
In early 1994, the police summoned Gannon to court to answer charges of indecent assault.
Gannon’s first court case
Judging from their earlier interview with Gannon, the police expected that the church lawyers would fight the Gannon charges, with a “not guilty” plea, which would necessitate a long court hearing, perhaps over several days. The case was listed for a “mention” on 4 April 1995 (a mention day is usually a day when the prosecution and the defence agree on a subsequent date for a full hearing). But when the case was called for mention at 10.00am on April 4, Gannon’s lawyers asked for an immediately hearing (that morning), saying that Gannon would plead guilty. A guilty plea means that the matter can be disposed of in one morning, without the need to examine witnesses and (the church hoped) without publicity.
Until April 4, the church lawyers had good reason to expect that the case might slip right through the court system on that very day, unnoticed by the media. The case was being heard not in the prominent Melbourne Magistrates Court, where journalists congregated, but in a low-profile suburban court at Prahran, 5 kilometres from the city centre. If no reporters turned up, the public would not learn about the case.
However, to the church’s surprise, someone had alerted the media. And reporters (from daily newspapers, suburban weekly papers and TV Channel Ten) were indeed present in court, taking notes.
Gannon pleaded guilty to nine incidents of indecent assault against four boys aged 11 and 12. Two of the victims were assaulted in the Glenhuntly parish in 1958, one in Ashburton in 1967 and one in Braybrook in 1973.
Two were altar boys. Gannon allegedly asked one boy to help him after school “answering the phone” and he also asked the boy’s parents to let him stay overnight at the presbytery.
Gannon allegedly told one boy that he was “writing a book on sexuality” and told another that he wanted to “do tests” on him.
The offences consisted of: Father Gannon handling the boys’ genitals; or making a boy masturbate the priest; or Father Gannon putting his genitals against a boy’s bottom.
The prosecutor said all four victims were still affected by their experiences and still needed psychological counselling.
The prosecutor said the four victims went to the police separately.
The victims were not required to attend court.
Gannon’s lawyer, addressing the court regarding a sentence, remarked that journalists were present in court. He said that the media coverage would be a big penalty for Gannon and therefore (he said) the court should impose a lenient sentence.
Magistrate Tony Ellis sentenced Gannon to a year in jail on each of the nine charges but allowed Gannon to serve the nine sentences concurrently — that is, one year behind bars. Gannon was not to be eligible for parole.
By 12.00 noon, the case was finished, and Gannon was escorted from the court building in custody, heading for jail. His departure was filmed by a Channel Ten camera crew.
One victim said outside the court: “We are merely the few who went to the police. Gannon admitted our assaults in court but he did not volunteer anything about other victims. I believe that there are many other Gannon victims who have not yet gone to the police.”
Within an hour or so, Gannon’s conviction was being reported that afternoon (4 April 1995) on hourly radio news bulletins. Channel Ten’s evening news bulletin showed footage of Gannon being escorted to a police wagon, on his way to jail. There were reports next day in Melbourne’s two daily papers (the “Age” and “Herald Sun”) and later in suburban weekly papers in all the districts where Gannon had worked.
Melbourne’s Catholic community was stunned when it heard, for the first time, about Gannon’s criminal charges and about his guilty plea and his jailing. Previously, Catholics had been told that Gannon was “on leave”.
The MacLeod-Rosanna parish, in Melbourne’s north-east, erupted in turmoil as parishioners criticised the church authorities for having tried to conceal Gannon’s activities. Parishioners complained that the church authorities had made no attempt to find out how many other Gannon victims there were and whether these victims required professional help. And the church had made no attempt to locate — and help — victims in Gannon’s previous parishes.
An evening meeting of parishioners was held at the Macleod-Rosanna parish, at which the vicar-general (chief administrator) of the Melbourne archdiocese (Monsignor Gerald Cudmore) spoke about the Gannon issue. Broken Rites representatives were in the audience. When a Broken Rites representative asked if Gannon was likely to face allegations from further victims, Gerry Cudmore replied: “Not to my knowledge.”
Although he was behind bars, Gannon was still officially a priest. Twelve months after his conviction, the Melbourne archdiocese still included him in its list of “Supplementary Diocesan Priests” in the 1996 edition of the Directory of Australian Catholic Clergy (published by the National Council of Priests). And the archdiocese put the letters PE after Gannon’s name. PE is short for Pastor Emeritus (meaning a pastor who has retired with honour). All this was while he was in jail.
Gannon’s second court case
Gannon’s 1995 conviction prompted more victims to come forward. Some merely contacted the church and left their complaint “in the hands of the church” but others contacted the police and were interviewed by the police SOCA Unit.
Released from jail on 4 April 1996 (after serving the full 52 weeks behind bars), Desmond Gannon was immediately charged by Caulfield Criminal Investigation Unit with further offences. In the Melbourne Magistrates Court on 25 February 1997, he pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting three more boys in the 1960s: a 13-year-old boy in Alphington; a 12-year-old boy in Kilmore (a student at the Marist Brothers’ Assumption College); and a seven-year-old boy in Ashburton.
Magistrate Brian Barrow sentenced Gannon to 12 months in jail. This sentence, however, was suspended because it would have been served concurrently with his first sentence if all the offences had come to light at the same time.
A report of this hearing (with a photo of Gannon) appeared in the Melbourne “Age” on 26 February 1997.
Gannon’s third court case
After press reports of his second conviction, still more of Gannon’s victims contacted police. This time, the offences were more serious. Gannon appeared in the Melbourne County Court on 30 June 2000 for sentence.
The charges involved indecent assaults on four boys in parishes at Alphington, Ashburton, East St Kilda and Braybrook in the 1960s and ’70s.
Desmond Gannon pleaded guilty to 11 counts of indecent assault and four counts of gross indecency against four boys, aged 11 to 14, between January 1963 and December 1976.
The offences included masturbation of the victims, having the victims masturbate him, acts of oral penetration and simulated intercourse. According to the prosecution brief, these incidents were more serious than the ones for which he had previously been convicted.
Judge John Barnett said the four boys had been adversely affected by Gannon’s behaviour to an extent that many years later they took their complaints to police.
The judge told Gannon: “In each case they have lost their faith in religion and in each case, of course, you have abused the trust that your church and their parents placed in you.”
However, despite the fact that these offences were more serious than in the previous cases, Judge Barnett declined to jail Gannon. He imposed a three-year suspended sentence. The judge said that it would have been preferable if these four victims had come forward at the same time as the previous prosecutions so that a sentence could have been applied to all the offences simultaneously.
This hearing was reported in the Melbourne “Age” on 1 July 2000.
Gannon’s fourth court case
On 21 August 2003, Desmond Gannon appeared in the Melbourne County Court again, charged with indecently assaulting a boy, then 14, at Carnegie in 1958-59. Gannon, aged nearly 75, pleaded guilty.
The court heard that the boy told his Catholic parents of the incident but they accused him of lying. He contacted police in 2000 after Gannon’s third conviction.
The prosecutor said the victim’s relationship with his parents was never the same. They died before knowing his allegations were true.
Fifth court case, May 2009
The Victoria Police (through their Sexual Offences and Child Abuse unit) continued to receive complaints about Gannon. On 21 May 2009, Gannon (aged 79) again appeared in the Melbourne County Court, where he pleaded guilty to five incidents of indecent assault against an eleven-year-old boy (let us call him “Sam“) at the Kilmore parish (north of Melbourne), between 1968 and 1970.
The court was told that the boy was a pupil at Kilmore’s St Patrick’s Primary School in 1968 when he was asked by his class teacher to go with Gannon in a car to “pick up some typewriters”.
During this excursion, Gannon talked to the boy about being without a father. Gannon used this as an excuse to give the boy an “anatomy” lesson. Gannon drove the boy to a secluded bush track, where he removed the boy’s pants. He told the boy “this is your penis” and then started to masturbate the boy. [In criminal law, this action by an adult against a child is called indecent assault.]
Later on the same day, Father Gannon put a blanket on the ground, removed all his own clothes and the victim’s clothes. He made the boy touch Gannon’s penis.
Father Gannon put his erect penis between the boy’s legs and simulated intercourse. Father Gannon ejaculated. The boy was crying and felt sick.
Father Gannon told the boy not to tell anyone because that they would not believe him. As a “reward”, Gannon allowed the boy to steer the car on the way back to Kilmore.
The victim remained silent about the priest’s assaults because his parents were devout Catholics, the court was told.
On another occasion, Gannon mauled the boy’s penis while the boy was putting on his altar-boy robes prior to assisting Gannon celebrate Mass in 1968. Immediately after this assault, Gannon conducted the Mass.
And he mauled the boy’s penis in the pump room of the swimming pool at the Marist Brothers’ Assumption College in Kilmore in 1969. After this incident, Gannon gave the boy a cigarette as a reward.
Father Gannon used to frequent the Assumption College pool as a supervisor, the court was told.
In 2008, when police began investigating the victim’s complaint, they arranged for the victim to telephone Gannon from the detectives’ office. During this conversation (secretly recorded by the police), the victim reminded Gannon about the sexual abuse but Gannon refused to apologise to the victim. He told the victim: “I won’t say sexual abuse because at the time I didn’t know what it was.”
When police later interviewed Gannon, they asked him why he took the boy to the secluded bush location and touched his penis. Gannon replied that he was giving the boy some sex education — explaining the “differences in anatomy”.
“I thought it was less formal, rather than inviting him into the presbytery and that’s all,” Gannon told the police.
Police arrested Gannon at his home unit in Albion Road, Box Hill, on 21 May 2008.
Pre-sentence submissions, May 2009
At Gannon’s pre-sentence hearing on 21 May 2009, three witnesses gave character evidence in court on behalf of Gannon. Each knew Gannon at his final parish, Macleod-Rosanna, where (they said) he was well-regarded among the parish’s 1,000 families. In addition, these witnesses told the court that, when Des Gannon left the parish, the parish’s families were not told about the impending criminal charges. Parishioners found out only after Gannon’s 1995 jailing was reported in the media.
- Retired Baptist minister Donald Leslie Johnson, who once worked as an aged-care chaplain in the Macleod-Rosanna district, told the court that he did not know in the early 1990s why Des Gannon left the Macleod-Rosanna parish but discovered later about the jail sentence and the reasons for it. Johnson, who spoke warmly in support of Gannon, said that Gannon had never said he knew that what he did was wrong.
- Stephen Francis Mudd, public accountant, of Bundoora, told the court that from 1980 onwards he was a parishioner at Macleod-Rosanna, where he helped to supervise up to 55 altar boys. When Des Gannon left the parish, the next priest (Father Robinson) explained to the congregation that Father Des was “suffering bad health”. Mudd said that, a year or so later, he discovered about Gannon’s criminal court case. Mudd said that he kept in contact with Gannon, who went to prisons at Pentridge (Melbourne), then Sale (eastern Victoria) and Ararat (western Victoria).
- Janice Mary Gleeson, of Tecoma, a Sister in the Good Samaritan religious order for 55 years, said she started working with Fr Des Gannon at Macleod-Rosanna parish in 1986. She said that, in 1986, she knew that there were rumours about Gannon touching children but (she said) she did nothing about this, leaving it to other people (such as his fellow priests) to deal with this issue. After Gannon was charged [in 1994], Archbishop Frank Little asked Sister Gleeson to provide “pastoral support” to Gannon and his family and she continued doing this while he was in jail and also after he left jail. [There was no mention in court of the church authorities seeking in 1994 to locate victims of Gannon in order to offer pastoral support to them; the only pastoral support mentioned in court was for Gannon, not for victims.] Sister Gleeson said Gannon was now living in a block of nine units, where he was providing “pastoral care” to the other residents.
In his final submission, Gannon’s lawyer asked the court to impose a non-custodial sentence. During this submission, Gannon’s lawyer referred to the victim as “this fellow”.
The lawyer said that (despite all his convictions) the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese was still supporting Gannon, by paying rent for the home unit where Gannon resided in Box Hill, Melbourne.
The defence claimed that Gannon was feeling remorse for his offences.
However, Judge Gucciardo questioned the extent of the remorse because Gannon had failed to apologise in the May 2008 taped phone conversation.
During the final submission by the defence, Judge Gucciardo remarked that Gannon told the victim in the May 2008 taped phone conversation: “I was trying to help you at the time.” The victim told Gannon that the sexual abuse had wrecked his life, but Gannon replied: “You look pretty good to me.” In the phone chat, Gannon also bemoaned the loss of his church job.
Prosecutor Raymond Gibson, in his final submission, said the offences were a gross breach of trust by a man holding the respectable status of a clergyman.
Mr Gibson pointed to the age disparity — a 40-year-old man targeting an eleven-year-old victim.
Furthermore, Mr Gibson said, the boy was from a single-parent family, living with his mother and lacking a father figure. It was in this context that Gannon claimed to be teaching the boy about sex.
The offences were planned and deliberate and had long-term psychological effect on the victim, Mr Gibson said.
In the taped phone conversation, the victim asked Gannon to apologise for the sexual abuse but Gannon denied that it was abuse, Mr Gibson said. This showed Gannon’s lack of remorse, Mr. Gibson said.
Victim attempted suicide
An impact statement by the victim was submitted to the court. The victim (“Sam”, aged 51 at the time of the impact statement) stated that after the abuses he had felt “broken, old, clumsy, dirty, ugly, guilty, confused, rejected, worthless and scared”. The priest’s breach of trust, plus the church’s veil of silence, had a devasting effect on his life, the victim said. He said he did not socialise as a normal child after the offences.
“It destroyed all my hopes and dreams,” the statement said.
Years later, he attempted suicide.
The victim said he has been helped by reporting Gannon to the police. He said: “At last I can finally speak out. Not like the dark old days, people are listening now.”
Jailed, June 2009
At the sentencing on 10 June 2009, Judge Frank Gucciardo spoke at length about all the evidence and submissions in the case.
The judge recounted the details of the Kilmore offences. Referring to the “anatomy” lesson that Gannon gave to the boy, the judge said: “This was a well-worn, thought-out routine, with sex education a poor excuse,”
The judge read to the court the victim’s impact statement, detailing the effect on the victim’s later life.
The judge referred to the taped telephone conversation between the victim and Gannon. He also referred to the police interview with Gannon. The judge said that Gannon’s statements show no sign of a true confession and no sign of contrition. He said Gannon’s explanations displayed self-delusion and a lack of understanding of the impact on his victim. He said that Gannon’s attitude to his crimes was nonchalant and dismissive.
The judge sentenced Gannon to 25 months jail, with 14 months to be served behind bars before Gannon could apply for parole. This means that, added to the 12 months jail sentence in 1995, Gannon would finally have served a total of 26 months behind bars.
The June 2009 sentencing was reported on all television channels in the evening news bulletins and in the next day’s Melbourne newspapers.
As a result, more Gannon victims have come forward, including another victim from Kilmore and one from Gannon’s final parish (at Macleod-Rosanna in the 1980s).
There are still more Gannon victims who have yet to contact the police. MacLeod-Rosanna parishioners say there are more Gannon victims in that parish.
Involved with Scouts
Gannon’s interest in boys was not confined to presbyteries. Gannon was involved in the Scouts.
When Gannon was interviewed by police regarding the Kilmore offences, he stated that he coached a school football team.
And it is known that he used to take boys for holidays at Apollo Bay.
Gannon was among a number of problematic clergy who have been associated with the Marist Brothers’ Assumption College, Kilmore. Gannon was the “chaplain” at Assumption College in the late 1960s for two or three years.
Here are the full names of Gannon’s parishes:
- Glenhuntly (St Anthony’s parish) 1957-62,
- Alphington (St Anthony’s) 1962-65,
- Braybrook (Christ the King) 1965-66,
- Ashburton (St Michael’s) 1966-67,
- St Kilda East (St Mary’s) 1968,
- Kilmore (St Patrick’s) Oct 1968 to Jan 1971,
- Braybrook (Christ the King) again 1971-79 and
- Macleod-Rosanna (St Martin of Tours) 1980-93.
In these parishes, Gannon also acted as a “chaplain” at local Catholic schools. For example, he was a chaplain at the Christian Brothers Parade College junior school in Alphington, according to a Parade College magazine in 1962.
Father Desmond Laurence Gannon is not to be confused with another Melbourne sex criminal, Father Michael Glennon, who was also jailed.
The victims who contacted the police were not Gannon’s only victims. It would be impossible to estimate the total number of his victims.
Another Gannon victim, “Patrick” (who did not take part in the court cases), contacted Broken Rites in 2007 and asked us to publish his story:
“In the 1960s, early in Gannon’s career as a priest, I was a pupil at my local Catholic primary school, and I was also an altar boy. I felt particularly vulnerable, terrified and traumatised, particularly whilst serving early-morning masses by myself during week days and also at other times during the day because our parish school was so close to the parish church.
“On several occasions, Gannon called me over to the presbytery and the school hall to molest me.
“He would ask me to remove my under-clothing, sit me on his knee and grope me, etc, etc.
“I remember talking to one classmate, also a victim at the time, as to why Gannon was doing this. The answer he said was something like “he is testing for salts”. The classmate said he did it to some of the girls.
“I was aged 10, 11 or 12 at the time. I was humiliated and too embarrassed to discuss it with anyone, apart from mentioning this to a classmate
“Gannon was aware of my situation. I was a soft target and he took full advantage of it. My mother, a very devout Catholic, left my father when I was 2 years old and we moved to a new address.
“We were relatively poor at the time and I can remember mother contributing her “hard-earned” regularly to the church funds. In terms of sacrifice, this was big for her. While she was faithfully making contributions, Gannon was betraying all trust for the gratification of his own lust by molesting me. How much more despicable can it get?
“The effect this had on me was shocking, bewildering and devastating. I was taught to unconditionally trust the church and clergy. The actions of Gannon broke this trust. I had nowhere to go. I was too embarrassed to tell my mother and I did not trust the church. This led to inner conflict, confusion, fear, trauma and anxiety. I lost my faith, my respect for the church, my self confidence and esteem.
“The on-going effect on my life, prospects and those of my children is immeasurable. The damage has been done and is now part of my psyche. Maybe it has contributed to my inability to have lasting relationships amongst other problems — problems that are hard to quantify, problems I have tried to forget as a self protective mechanism.
“I understand the church attempts to deny these pedophilic offences until they are exposed by victims such as me. This is tantamount to condoning such behavior. It is not my intention to see Gannon suffer, but it is incumbent on the church and its credibility that offending clergy be identified and removed from their positions of trust.
“The church is directly or indirectly responsible for the actions of Gannon. It can’t give me back my innocence, but it can as an act of reconciliation compensate me as acknowledgement of the injustice done and provide closure.
“It would also demonstrate that the church is sincere about taking all steps to ensure that these offences are not pushed under the carpet.” — End of Patrick’s story
A photograph of Gannon, taken outside the court building, can be seen here.
Getting help from the police
The Gannon case demonstrates how victims can obtain justice by having a chat with specialist police officers.
Each Australian state has a unit where victims of sexual abuse can consult specialist police. In Victoria, this is called the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Unit (SOCA). In other states there is a different procedure. Any victim wanting information about his or her state, should phone or email Broken Rites.