An archbishop covered up the crimes of Father Billy Baker
One of Australia’s most prominent Catholic leaders, Archbishop Frank Little, covered up complaints about a priest’s child-sex crimes, a Melbourne court was told. Despite knowing about Father Wilfred Baker’s crimes, Archbishop Little allowed Baker to be transferred to a new parish, thereby enabling this priest to commit more child-sex crimes.
Broken Rites first heard about Father Baker after Broken Rites launched its Australia-wide telephone hotline in late 1993. Broken Rites advised these callers that victims should contact the Victoria Police sexual offences and child abuse unit. As a result, detectives eventually charged Baker with child-sex crimes.
In the Melbourne County Court on 8 June 1999, Father Wilfred James Baker (then aged 62) was sentenced to four years’ jail, with parole after two years.
What the judge said
In a pre-sentence hearing on 7 June 1999, Judge Russell Lewis told the court that, at the Gladstone Park parish (in Melbourne’s north-west) in 1978, a family complained to the church that Father Billy Baker was misbehaving towards their young son. The judge said Melbourne’s Archbishop Frank Little was made aware of the complaint. Despite this (said the judge) Baker was then transferred from the Gladstone parish to Eltham (in Melbourne’s north-east).
“He continued with his criminality [at Eltham]”, the judge said.
The judge added: “In the past, there have been paedophile priests who have been moved around with the full knowledge of the hierarchy.”
Wilfred Baker pleaded guilty to 16 counts of indecent assault and one of gross indecency, involving eight boys, aged 10 to 13, over a 20-year period between 1960 and 1979. Baker fondled the boys sexually in bed during weekend trips and rubbed himself against them.
The first boy was at a migrant camp in 1960 while Baker (then 24) was still training to be a priest. This boy was living at the migrant camp when Baker visited there with a church youth group.
The seven other boys, mostly altar boys, were all pupils at the parish schools in Baker’s various Melbourne parishes. They were all assaulted at the home of Baker’s parents in Maryborough, where they were forced to share a bedroom with Baker. In at least one incident, Baker gave alcohol to a boy before going to bed with him.
The priest’s background
Broken Rites has compiled the following summary of Baker’s career.
Billy Baker, the son of a doctor, was born on 1 July 1936. He boarded as a pupil at the Marist Brothers’ Assumption College, Kilmore (in central Victoria), where his nickname was “Turd” Baker.
He tried studying medicine at Melbourne University but ended up at the Melbourne Catholic seminary, Corpus Christi College. Ordained a priest in 1961, his parish appointments included Jordanville 1962-66, East Brighton 1966-68,Mordialloc 1968-69, Balaclava 1969-71, hospital chaplaincy 1971-74, Doveton 1974-75, Gladstone Park 1975-78,Eltham 1978-92 and North Richmond 1993-99.
All of these parishes, except North Richmond, were included among Baker’s 17 charged offences. This does not mean that Baker was well behaved at North Richmond. The archdiocese certainly received complaints from North Richmond families. It merely means that the North Richmond complaints did not reach the courts.
Father Baker was noted for hanging around young boys at the local parish schools and he also used to visit St Kevin’s College (Christian Brothers) in Toorak and Assumption College in Kilmore. He was notorious as an advocate of masturbation which he talked about constantly to boys and even to fellow-priests.
Bill Baker’s fellow-priests and superiors knew he was a problem for children at his early parishes, which would account for him being removed from parish work to hospital chaplaincy in 1971-4. It has been common for the archdiocese to “quarantine” a problem priest in hospital chaplaincy until the dust settles. Such a priest would then be put into a new parish, with his record covered up.
The 1978 cover-up
At Gladstone Park (Church of the Good Shepherd parish) in 1976-7, Baker befriended a local family who had a son “Damien” (then aged 12-13). Damien’s parents trusted Baker because priests were above suspicion. Baker would go to Damien’s bedroom to “help” with school work and would give him driving lessons, with the boy sitting on Baker’s knee in the car. He also took Damien away on trips and (it was revealed later) showered with him.
In 1978, Damien’s father complained about Baker to the chairman of the parish school board (Brian Cosgriff, who was also a magistrate). Brian Cosgriff consulted another Catholic layman (Brendan Murphy, who was a barrister). However, the two law men neglected to notify the police. Instead, they merely notified Archbishop Frank Little. Thus, the matter was concealed from the police, thereby endangering further victims.
Archbishop Little’s secretary (Monsignor Peter Connors, who later became the bishop of Ballarat) visited Damien’s family and soothed them, so that the matter was kept secret. (Connors had attended school with Baker at Assumption College, Kilmore, and the two are of similar age.)
Despite his obvious danger to young children, Baker was retained in the ministry and was transferred to Eltham. He was given a farewell function at Gladstone Park and the parishioners there were not told the real reason why he was leaving.
Likewise, the parishioners of Eltham (Our Lady Help of Christians parish) were not warned why he was arriving and he continued his criminal behaviour there. Eltham victims, particularly, would have a reason for suing the Melbourne diocese for damages for its negligence in retaining Baker in family ministry after Gladstone Park. Baker was the only priest at Eltham, so he was unsupervised.
At Baker’s final parish (North Richmond, St James’s parish), he was again the only priest — still unsupervised. Here, there were yet more complaints in 1994 by parents who refused to let their sons serve as altar boys for Baker.
Bishop Peter Connors (one of Melbourne’s four auxiliary bishops) compiled a report on Baker for the archdiocese but, again, Baker was allowed to remain in family ministry.
On 25 November 1993, after Broken Rites had sparked off an Australia-wide media debate about church sexual abuse, a Baker victim (“Gary”) wrote to the vicar-general (chief administrator) of the Melbourne archdiocese, Monsignor Gerald Cudmore, telling how Baker had sexually assaulted him at Jordanville (Mary Magdalen’s parish) in 1962. Gary’s letter criticised the diocese for its negligence in allowing a person such as Baker to become (and remain) a priest.
Gary added: “Despite the church’s preoccupation with sexual morality, which continues today and has tended to create a guilt industry among my generation, it was apparently lax in applying the same strict codes to its ministers.”
Gary gave a copy of this letter to Broken Rites but he never received a reply from Monsignor Gerry Cudmore or any other archdiocesan official. And the archdiocese continued having Baker as the Parish Priest at North Richmond.
The archdiocese intended to keep Baker in the ministry indefinitely but in 1996, as recommended by Broken Rites, one victim (“Keith”) finally contacted the police SOCA unit. Interviewed by police about this single complaint, Baker initially denied the charges and contemplated contesting this in court. But the police soon located more victims (including the above-mentioned Gary) and learned about the 1978 cover-up. Baker eventually gave in and pleaded guilty.
In mid-1997, realising that the game was up, the archdiocese sent Baker on “administrative leave”. A victim tipped off Melbourne’s Sunday Herald Sun, which broke the Baker story (including the Gladstone Park cover-up) on 15 June 1997. This paper quoted Bishop Peter Connors as saying that he knew in 1978 about the Gladstone Park incidents. In 1978, Connors was the vicar-general (chief administrator) of the archdiocese. (Incidentally, Connors had been a pupil at Assumption College about the same time as Baker.)
These eight witnesses were not Baker’s only victims. Several others had phoned Broken Rites but did not go to the police. Each of these boys knew of other possible Baker victims. Police learned about another victim who was seeing a psychiatrist but this victim declined to give evidence because he was now a religious Brother.
Baker’s barrister asked Judge Lewis for a lenient sentence and tabled some “good-character” evidence, including a written testimonial from a priest representing the diocese’s priests. Judge Lewis then raised the matter of the 1978 complaint and noted that this was still not being mentioned by the defence.
The court was told that the diocese was still paying Baker a living allowance in 1999. [Was this in addition to Baker’s entitlements under Commonwealth Government benefits and did the Department of Social Security know about it?]
In sentencing, Judge Lewis said the victims had been profoundly affected by the actions of Baker and by the inaction of the diocese.
At the time of sentencing, Baker was still listed in the July 1999 Catholic Directory as the current priest in charge of St James’s parish, North Richmond.
The Baker prosecution was prepared by detectives from the Sexual Crimes Squad in St Kilda Road, Melbourne.
Judge Lewis’s remarks at a pre-sentence hearing on 7 June 1999 were reported in the next day’s Herald Sun under the heading Church hid abuser priest”. The jail sentence, imposed on 8 June 1999, was reported by radio, television and newspapers. As a result, Broken Rites continued to receive calls from further Baker victims.
On 26 June 1999, journalist Kay O’Sullivan commented in the Herald Sun: “I might not practise the faith in which I was brought up, but I still feel shocked and betrayed by the church when I read of another member of the Catholic clergy who has abused the great trust and faith placed in them. . .
“The church has only itself to blame…
“The wider effect of this betrayal — and I am not talking just of individual cases of abuse but also of the church hierarchy’s refusal to acknowledge its problem — is immeasurable…
“It will take years, perhaps even generations, to repair the damage done to the church by these dreadful revelations…”
In reply to this, Ringwood parish priest Father Kevin Dillon wrote in the Herald Sun (1 July 1999): “The ‘cover-ups’ for which church authorities have been severely criticised were more an indication of a widespread misunderstanding of pedophilia in society as a whole, as well as in the church…”
[Father Dillon ignored the fact that child sex-abuse has long been a crime, and the church always knew this fact.]
Father Dillon said people should trust institutions such as the Catholic priesthood, “despite the reality that from time to time that trust is undeserved”.
Father Dillon’s plea for trust was criticised by another priest, Father Michael Shadbolt, who had recently become the parish priest of Doveton – Baker’s old parish.
Father Shadbolt wrote in the Herald Sun (6 July 1999): “There is little doubt that fear of harming faith in the priesthood as an institution contributed significantly to the church’s delay in cleansing its clergy of pedophiles. The consequences of that have been disastrous.
“To use that same thinking as an argument against Kay O’Sullivan’s just critique of the Catholic clergy seems singularly inappropriate. It may even be irresponsible.
“As an institution, we failed badly in this matter.
“There is no alternative but for decent priests, the overwhelming majority, to wear the opprobrium and work to recover the trust now forfeited. Sadly, as Kay said, it may take decades.”
A battered parish
Some of Father Billy Baker’s child-sex crimes occurred while he was ministering in the Doveton parish (in Melbourne’s outer south-east, near Dandenong) in 1974, and it is interesting to note that several other priests who served at this same parish have been the subject of complaints by parishioners over the years.
FATHER Thomas O’Keeffe was the Parist Priest at Doveton in 1974 (with Fr Wilfred Baker as his assistant). After action by Broken Rites, the Melbourne archdiocese has apologized to former altar boys of Keeffe. He ministered at parishes in Sandringham (early 1960s), Preston East and St Kilda West (late 1960s), Brighton (1969-71), Doveton and Thornbury (1970s).
FATHER Victor Rubeo was the Parish Priest at Doveton in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In 1996, he pleaded guilty to having indecently assaulted two boys in a previous parish, Laverton. The Laverton offences came to light while police were investigating complaints against Rubeo by a woman concerning an incident in the Doveton parish. The prosecution then decided to proceed against Rubeo in relation to the Laverton complaints rather than the Doveton ones.
FATHER Peter Searson was the Parish Priest of Doveton from 1984, to 1997. In March 1997, after police began investigating certain matters, Archbishop George Pell suspended Searson from parish work (Sunday Herald Sun, Melbourne, 23 March 1997, p.2).
Civil action against the church
In 2002, one of the victims in Baker’s 1999 criminal case threatened to take civil court action against the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese, seeking damages for the church’s negligence in allowing Father Baker to commit sexual abuse. The victim, aged 35 in 2002, was a 12-year-old student at an Eltham parish primary school when Baker sexually assaulted him in 1979. In the 1999 criminal case, Baker pleaded guilty in relation to this victim. Eltham was one of Baker’s final parishes, and the Melbourne archdiocese had known about Baker’s previous offences.
In a statement of claim lodged at the office of the Melbourne County Court, the man said that the archdiocesan leaders ignored or chose to overlook Baker’s “known propensity to engage in sexual assaults”. The man claimed that the church leaders knew that Baker had been engaged in “illegal or inappropriate activities” but kept him on to avoid publicity.
The man said he still needed ongoing psychological treatment because of the abuse.
His claim alleged that that the church leaders failed to dismiss Baker, or remove him from any position in the archdiocese in which he could abuse children.
The man’s claim alleged that the church leaders concealed from parishioners their “knowledge of [Baker’s] proclivities.” It said the church leadership failed to detect pedophile priests, and failed to remove them.
The claim also said that the church leadership failed to supervise Baker and failed, once it knew of reports of Baker’s conduct in Gladstone Park, to warn Eltham students.
Broken Rites does not know the outcome of this victim’s civil action but he certainly had a strong case. Faced with a civil writ, the church normally offers to give a victim an out-of-court payment to settle the matter quietly.