A former Ballarat paedophile priest who unleashed a 22-year reign of terror on 12 children across western Victoria has been jailed for more than 18 years.
Less than a year after being ordained as a Catholic priest in 1969, Claffey, indecently assaulted a seven-year-old girl preparing for her first communion, the Geelong County Court heard on Tuesday.
Judge Felicity Hampel said Claffey was a “pedophillic sexual predator” who groomed parents and children and established trust before inflicting his horror.
She described Claffey's offending as "shameful and protracted abuse of his authority" as she sentenced him to 18 years and four months - with a minimum of 13 years and four months.
The court heard Claffey indecently assaulted a boy, whose brother had just died in a car accident, under the pretext of providing pastoral care. In another incident, while working as a parish priest at Our Lady Help of Christians Wendouree, he held a girl’s head against his groin after he told her to hide under his cloak during a game of hide and seek.
Years later he sexually penetrated the same girl before telling her “no one would believe her if she said anything.” Claffey pleaded guilty to 19 charges but Judge Hampel noted he'd offered no apology to his victims or shown any remorse.
"The consequences for your victims have been profound and, for many, life-long. That you were able to act with impunity for such a period speaks volumes for the power you exerted over your victims.”
Last month, Claffey pleaded guilty to 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 between 10 and 16.
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.
An emotionless Claffey sat behind a glass wall, inside a dock, with his head down and eyes closed. Victims have compared Claffey to Australia’s worst paedophile priest, Gerald Ridsdale.
One of his victims said outside court on Tuesday, when Ridsdale left Ballarat and was shifted across western Victoria Claffey became his paedophile successor.
A move by former Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkerans saw Ridsdale replaced with Claffey at the diocese’s Apollo Bay Parish in 1973. Both paedophiles were ordained into the Catholic Church by late Ballarat bishop James O'Collins.
A victim of serial paedophile Robert Claffey who was sexually abused just hours after his brother died said he was vindicated by the sentence handed down to the disgraced former Ballarat priest.
Victim remains haunted by abuse
Speaking outside the Geelong County Court, Frank Hampster said the more than 18 year jail sentence was just, fair and tantamount to a death penalty.
Mr Hampster was assaulted by Claffey in 1984, while he was the parish priest at Our Lady Help of Christians in Wendouree. He was then forced to watch him bury his brother at his funeral the next day. He said while Claffey would most likely die in jail, he had already imposed a life sentence on the children he’d abused.
“For me, it’s been 32 years in the making,” Mr Hampster said. "Bob Claffey has taken a fair portion of everyone's lives and he deserves to have a fair portion of his life taken from him.”
He accused the Catholic Church of orchestrating a “paedophile relocation program” which allowed Claffey to flourish for decades.
Another of Claffey’s victims previously told the court Ridsdale abused him before he was sexually assaulted by Claffey. Ridsdale has admitted abusing at least 53 children between 1961 to 1982. He was shifted from parish to parish enabling his sex-crime spree to span for decades. He has been convicted of 138 sex crimes against children.
Like Ridsdale, Claffey will most likely die in jail.
Judge Hampel said the abuse was a blatant breach of the trust existing between priests and parishioners while a paedophile ring operated in and around Ballarat during the 1960, 70s and 80s.
“In addition to the sheer number of victims and the extended period over which it occurred, the absence of consent in all cases adds to the gravity of offending,” she said. “A number of your victims actively resisted, but you persisted, following them, chasing them, holding them down.”
One victim detailed how he fought Claffey off armed with a cricket bat. Another victim was riding his bike on the grounds of the Our Lady Help of Christians School when he was lured into shed by Claffey.
The court heard Claffey held the boy down before sexually penetrating him.
In another incident, Claffey selected a group of grade one boys and girls from OLHC and took them to the clergy house. He made them undress, stand naked in a circle and cough.
When one of the boys asked why they had to take their clothes off, Claffey sent the other children back to class and assaulted the boy who was five or six at the time. He only released the boy when the school bell rang, the court heard.
“I read and heard of lives being blighted by the impact of the behaviour, of mental illness, substance abuse, self-harm, suicide attempts...trials of broken relationships and difficulties in parenting,” Judge Hampel said.
In 1998 Claffey admitted indecently assaulting two boys after a family member died but he was placed on a good behaviour bond. Emotional victims and their family members embraced outside the court. A relative of one of the victims Fiona McKinnon praised the efforts of the SANO police Taskforce.
“Without their dedication none of this would have been possible,” she said. “I really want to thank all the victims who have come forward and been so brave.”
Claffey will be 86 when he is eligible for parole.To contact Ballarat’s CASA call 5320 3933 or free call 24 hours crisis care on 1800 806 292. Lifeline 13 11 14