A former Ballarat priest who has pleaded guilty to a string of historic child sexual abuse charges spanning a 22-year period has been forced to listen to his victims relive the horror he inflicted on them.
Robert Claffey, 73, sat with his head down and eyes closed at a County Court sitting in Geelong on Monday as the details of the crimes he committed on each of his 12 victims were read out loud.
The victims, many who were abused at the hands of Claffey while he was parish priest in Ballarat, detailed the self blame, suicidal tenancies and failed relationships that have plagued their lives since Claffey’s abuse.
One victim, who was also the victim of disgraced paedophile priest Gerald Risdale at Apollo Bay, told the court he knew he had to be careful about Claffey because “there was something creepy about the way he looked at me.”
“I felt dirty and complicit in what had happened … if only I had the courage to speak out to save other children,” he said.
Another victim, who was forced to strip and cough, and later fondled by Claffey while he was the parish priest at Our Lady Help of Christians in Wendouree during the 1980s, said he spent half his life being angry, the other half sad.
“I used to pray for a lot of things, I don’t pray anymore because I’ve lost my faith, or rather it was taken from me,” he told the court.
“I’ve grown into a man who believes he cannot be loved.
“I feel ashamed… but it’s you (Claffey) who should feel ashamed.”
A third victim, who was abused by Claffey at Wendouree two days after his brother died, told the court he only returns to Ballarat to clean the plaque at his brother’s grave.
“I was left hating humanity,” he said.
“Not one day goes by when I do not think of what happened.”
It took almost an hour for the court to hear from each victim.
Of the 12 victims, seven lived in Ballarat when they were abused. Others were abused by Claffey while he was a Catholic priest at Warnambool, Portland, Apollo Bay and Ecklin South between 1970 and 1992.
Ten victims were male and two female of ages varying from six years to 16.
On one occasion in the early 1980s Claffey asked a young Wendouree boy, aged 12-13, to help him in a shed where he pulled the boys pants down and sexually abused him.
Another Ballarat victim was aged six when she first encountered Claffey. During a game of hide and seek Claffey told the girl to hide under his cloak where he held her head against his groin.
Over the course of the next four years he indecently assaulted her, on one occasion he sexually penetrated her before telling her “no one would believe her if she said anything.”
A Warnambool boy also became a young victim of Claffey’s after the parish priest visited his house on a number of occasions between 1974-76.
What began as tickling on each occasion resulted in the boy being fondled by Claffey.
In 1977, an Apollo Bay victim was forced to defend himself with a cricket bat after Claffey touched him.
After smirking at the boy, it took another swing of the bat to force him to leave.
Claffey pleaded guilty one count of buggery, six counts of indecent assault on a male person, 10 counts of indecent assault and two counts of sexual penetration of a person aged 10-16.
Prosecution put to Judge Felicity Hampel there were a number of aggravating features to the offending which saw Claffey take advantage of his position of power over an extended period of time.
Claffey’s lawyer called a character witness to give evidence about Claffey’s involvement in community service since ceasing to serve as a priest in 1994.
The vision impaired man, who worked alongside Claffey as part of a local vision impaired community group, told the court about the long hours the accused had put into advocating for visually impaired people.
“The Robert Claffey I’ve been hearing about in court isn’t the one I know,” he told the court.
The lawyer urged the judge not to impose a jail sentence that would see his client die in prison.
He added while the offending was very serious, not all the victim’s difficulties in life could be attributed to his client’s offending.
Needing time to reflect, Judge Hampel adjourned sentencing until September 29.
Many victims turned to watch Claffey as he was remanded in custody.
To contact Ballarat’s Centre Against Sexual Assualt call 5320 3933 or free call 24 hours crisis care on 1800 806 292.
Lifeline 13 11 14
Relationships Australia 1300 364 277
beyondblue 1300 22 46 36