Two Canterbury men are accusing the Catholic church of enabling a priest to carry out a string of child sex attacks in multiple South Island parishes.

Documents show the church knew Father Cornelius O’Brien was a serial predator when, in 2007, it thanked him publicly for his service. See ‘Priests from Ireland’ on page eight of the Catholic Bishop of Christchurch’s June 2007 newsletter Inform.

Published by Radio New Zealand

His years of attacks on one boy, from age four, culminated in rape, said that victim, who RNZ has agreed not to name. This man won an apology and limited compensation after complaining in 2004.

A second of his victims, Christchurch chef George Russell, 58, is demanding the church open its books on the priest, so his other victims can seek help.

“The church allowed him to carry on,” he said.

“You can’t say you didn’t know – well, they did know cos otherwise they wouldn’t move him around.”

Father O’Brien arrived in New Zealand from Ireland in 1963 and served at least seven parishes in Canterbury and the West Coast until 1976.

A church investigator’s report in 2017 into George Russell’s case said that in 1976 the priest was convicted of indecency with a 10-year-old, and the church sent him back to the UK. He died, still a priest, in East Anglia six years ago.

O’Brien engaged in a “litany of offending against young boys in various parishes”, the report said.

He forced George Russell to give him oral sex in the Temuka Presbytery in the summer of ’72.

Mr Russell said he had “buried it” most of his life, then recently had a breakdown and confronted the abuse, culminating in a complaint to the police and the church in 2016.

“The church should be opening up its books,” said Mr Russell, who won an apology from the Bishop and very limited compensation.

“It’s only dealt with me, it hasn’t dealt with the other ones.”

But by coming forward, Mr Russell has now been put in touch with one of those “other ones” – the Canterbury man who Father O’Brien attacked starting when he was four-years-old, who is in his 50s now.

The Church had a “comprehensive file” on his case, of assaults spanning 13 years and two other Canterbury towns, the investigator’s report said.

“At the end it was rape,” the man told RNZ.

“He said things like, ‘If you tell anyone you’re going to go to hell, and so is your parents as well’. And for a five-year-old it’s true, whatever the priest says is law.”

RNZ has asked the Bishop of Christchurch, Paul Martin, to release the files the church has on Father O’Brien.

He said he would but had to sort out privacy issues first and, until then, turned down repeated requests for an interview.

At one point his spokesperson said he was too busy to talk to RNZ, because he was at the week-long national assembly of 180 priests in Christchurch. The reporter went to the hotel where the assembly was taking place to ask for 10 minutes of the Bishop’s time, but was told no.

The man RNZ is not naming filed a complaint with the church in 2004 and eventually won an apology and limited compensation, but not before church lawyers in the UK sent him a letter telling him to “cease and desist or we’ll be charged with defamation of character”.

“We ignored it and carried on.”

In 2007, a church newsletter included O’Brien’s name in a list of priests it said had “gloriously blessed” the diocese by leaving their “native lands” to proclaim the Word of God in New Zealand.

“Let us always be grateful for their sacrifice and remember them in our prayers,” the newsletter said.

It is not known if, at any stage, Catholic authorities here alerted UK police to what they knew about O’Brien’s sex crimes in this country.

It was time for the church to stop concealing abuse cases, the two Canterbury men both said.

“It is opening up a big can of worms, a lot more than probably’s ever been released by the church,” the second man said.

“They must’ve had lots of complaints over the years. They should be contacting the people that he had abused, that they know of, and sitting down to talk with them.”

In July, George Russell wrote to the Pope, to say he was pleased there was a Pontiff who was acknowledging the extent of clergy abuse worldwide.

Parishes where Cornelius O’Brien served

  • 1963 Ashburton
  • 1965-1970 Various parishes in Timaru and Christchurch
  • 1970 Papanui
  • 1973 Temuka
  • 1975 Cheviot
  • 1975 Tinwald
  • 1975 Addington
  • 1976 Hokitika
  • 1976 Convicted in court of indecency, sent back to UK
  • 2012 Dies in England, still a priest

By Phil Pennington
Published by Radio New Zealand
17 September 2018