Listen to interview: http://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/trace/trace-episode-03-sins/8681258
As the focus over Maria James’ murder narrows onto the church, Adam reveals new information about a second abusive priest within the family’s local parish.
Rachael Brown investigates the priest’s past and discovers a dark and disturbing history.
Trace: Maria James’ family calls for ‘psychopath’ second priest to be investigated over murder
A violent and abusive priest who allegedly molested the son of cold case murder victim Maria James was never investigated as a potential suspect in her killing.
James, a 38-year-old single mother, was stabbed 68 times in the back of her second-hand bookshop in Thornbury in Melbourne’s north in June 1980.
In 2013, her son Adam James revealed he was abused by a local priest, Father Anthony Bongiorno, in the month leading up to his mother’s murder.
Maria James murder:
- Stabbed 68 times in her Melbourne home
- Hands bound in what police described as a ‘frenzied attack’
- Youngest son abused by two local priests
- One priest seen covered in blood on day of murder
But Adam has told the ABC that on one occasion he was also sexually assaulted by a second priest, Father Thomas O’Keeffe.
Both priests lived and worked at St Mary’s Parish in Thornbury, just around the corner from Maria James’ bookshop.
Father Bongiorno was seen with blood on his hands, arm and face around the time of the murder.
Adam, who was 11 at the time, says he told his mother about the abuse, and believed she was going to confront Father Bongiorno.
Police eliminated Father Bongiorno as a suspect in 2015, but won’t say how they ruled him out. Sources close to the investigation have told the ABC his DNA does not match that found at the crime scene.
But police never looked into O’Keeffe, who died in 1984.
Ron Iddles, who has investigated the murder of Maria James for many years, believes she knew her attacker.
The James family were regular attendees at St Mary’s Presbytery — where Father O’Keeffe helped administer Adam’s first communion.
Now 48, Adam — who has cerebral palsy and Tourette syndrome — believes he might have been involved in his mother’s murder.
Along with his older brother Mark, he is calling on police to investigate Father O’Keeffe as a potential suspect.
While Father Bongiorno was an outspoken public figure, Father O’Keeffe kept a far lower profile.
“I was actually scared of him as a young boy,” says Mark James.
“He was the cold, silent one in the background.”
Father O’Keeffe had a history of violence and sexual abuse even before he became the parish priest at St Mary’s in 1978.
While at Doveton Parish in south-east Melbourne in the 70s, he preyed on young children alongside a group of paedophile priests.
The ABC’s Trace podcast has spoken to many of Father O’Keeffe’s victims.
James Shanahan was abused by the priest as an 11-year-old at Christian Brothers College in East St Kilda.
“O’Keeffe came to my classroom and took me out of it for the purpose of sex education,” Mr Shanahan said.
“We went into the brothers’ residential quarters, into a very large room, and he started to fondle me.
“At that point I remember disassociating almost straight away. I remember looking out the window, so very bright sunlight, and I just focused on that and that’s mentally where I went.”
The abuse continued for three years.
Mr Shanahan detailed the nature of the abuse in a submission to the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne in 1999, as part of the Church’s Melbourne Response.
He described abuse of a violent, sexual, ritualistic, and sadistic nature.
The Church-appointed Independent Commissioner, Peter O’Callaghan QC, met with Mr Shanahan in 2000.
In his formal response, Mr O’Callaghan wrote:
“I am satisfied that Mr Shanahan was a victim of sexual abuse inter alia by Father Thomas O’Keefe (deceased) substantially in the circumstances described by Mr Shanahan.
“I confirm that the events which Mr Shanahan describes are extraordinary, but I have no reason or justification for doubting his credibility.”
In 2001, James Shanahan received a letter signed by then Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, which read:
“I apologise to you and to those around you for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the hands of Father T O’Keefe.”
Mr Shanahan received $33,000 in compensation from the Church for the abuse.
Speaking to Trace, Mr Shanahan — now 67 — describes O’Keeffe as a “psychopath”.
“A friend of mine used to call him creeping Jesus, because he would sneak around. He’d love coming up behind you.
“He’d walk into the family home and he’d scare my mother, because she’d be in the kitchen at the sink and he’d be standing there behind her. He’d walked in and hadn’t made a sound.”
James has a memory of his wrists being bound with cord or a rope. On another occasion, James says O’Keeffe threatened him with a knife in his own home.
“He raped me and threatened to run me through with this carving knife.
“He was out of his mind with rage.”