Bunbury victim to file church abuse allegations in Supreme Court

Twenty years after Alan Rowe first approached the Catholic Church seeking an apology for alleged sexual abuse by a priest in Bunbury, he is set to file writs against the Catholic Diocese of Bunbury in the New South Wales Supreme Court.

Mr Rowe was an altar boy at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He claims that Father Kevin Johnston, one of the parish priests, abused him on about 12 separate occasions. 

“Father Johnston would come to me when we were in the sacristy together and changing into our robes for the service,” he said. 

“He would fondle me and make me touch his genitals too.

“I recall that Father Johnston used to say once he was finished with me that if I was to say anything about this, I’d be in a lot of trouble.”

A fortnight after first making his allegations against Father Johnston in August 1997, the pair came face-to-face at a mediation meeting in Perth. 

Father Johnston, who was at the time a parish priest in Australind, said he had no memory of Mr Rowe as a child and categorically denied any accusations of abuse. 

A few days later, Mr Rowe was given a hand-written letter signed by Father Johnston. 

“In the light of all that transpired during our recent meeting and having listened to your sad recollection of what happened on an occasion in the early 1970s as you recall the event, I sincerely regret that I should be in any way the cause of such sorrow to you,” he wrote. 

“This is a matter of deep sorrow for me as well. I sincerely apologise and I humbly ask your forgiveness.”

A copy of the letter Father Kevin Johnston wrote to Alan Rowe, dated August 26, 1997.

A copy of the letter Father Kevin Johnston wrote to Alan Rowe, dated August 26, 1997.

A month after the encounter, Father Johnston retired from the church to live in Ireland. The church has repeatedly denied that Father Johnston’s letter is an admission of guilt over Mr Rowe’s accusations. 

“Receiving the letter made it worse because when I first came forward I requested a face-to-face apology and that never happened,” Mr Rowe said. 

For three decades after the alleged abuse occurred, Mr Rowe fell into a serious drug addiction, eventually turning to Dr George O’Neill for help to break the habit. 

In 2004, after four clean years, Mr Rowe was offered an ex-gratia payment of $15,000 which he rejected at first, but eventually accepted. He then told his story to the press for the first time in 2005.  

Current Bishop of Bunbury Gerard Holohan made it clear in a letter dated February 16, 2005 that “the amount was offered to Mr Rowe out of genuine compassion, and not as compensation.”

“My hope had been that the money offered might help Mr Rowe to get back on his feet,” Bishop Holohan wrote. 

“This is not the first time the church has tried to help someone, nor will it be the last. The money was offered in good faith and for the purposes stated in the offer.”

After Mr Rowe made his allegations against Father Johnston public, two other men came forward with similar accusations from the same era. 

In 2014, Mr Rowe was given a private session with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – a chance to tell those investigating the historic crimes his personal story. 

“Talking to the Royal Commission helped a bit and I think it’s good that they are trying to make it known that these sorts of things did happen,” he said. 

Now with the help of a Sydney-based legal team, Mr Rowe is set to file his complaint in court, seeking compensation for the damage the alleged indiscretions caused him all those years ago. 

“You never get over this type of encounter and I’m sure if it hadn’t happened, my life would have taken a very different turn,” he said. 

“I was very academic and talented on the sporting field but what happened to me changed everything and I didn’t reach my full potential.”

The Mail spoke to Bishop Holohan on Tuesday and he said Father Johnston continued to deny any allegations of wrongdoing. 

“Father Johnston denied any allegations against him at the time he was accused and it’s a denial he maintains to this day,” Bishop Holohan said. 

He also said he stood by his 2005 explanation of Mr Rowe’s ex-gratia payment. 

“Some advised me not to offer a payment to Mr Rowe for fear it would be misinterpreted but I decided to try and help address his needs,” he said. 

Bishop Holohan said the work of the Royal Commission had been a great exercise to ensure similar instances of abuse did not occur in the future and he looked forward to any recommendations that further assisted institutional change.