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‘Where is his sense of guilt?’ Judge rejects claim paedophile priest was ‘vilified’

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A Melbourne judge who will soon sentence a repeat offender paedophile priest has condemned the Catholic church for prioritising “the sinner” over children, as the priest’s lawyer contended that the priest had been “vilified” and “hunted” for his crimes.

Robert Claffey, 76, is already serving more than a decade in prison for sexually abusing 12 children as young as five between 1969 and 1992.

The church became aware of his behaviour in the 1980s but moved him parish to parish throughout western Victoria, at one point even installing him as a replacement for the notorious paedophile Gerald Ridsdale.

In 2016 Claffey was jailed for a minimum of 13 years and four months. On Monday he admitted he had abused two other boys in Ballarat during the 1980s. One of the victims was aged between 12 and 15 at the time, the other six to seven.

Claffey’s defence lawyer Alan Hands asked the county court judge Paul Higham to consider that his client had been “vilified” by the media and community, and had shouldered the burden of his offending for years.

“He was moved from parish to parish,” Hands said on Friday. “For a number of years, he was hunted around the western district.”

He noted that Claffey had become a lay priest at his own request in 1994.

But the judge was not persuaded that the paedophile had been vilified or burdened by guilt.

“Some parents had got up the courage to challenge the church,” he said. “I don’t see how we make the leap from that to vilification. Being held accountable for your actions is not vilification.”

While noting that the Catholic church was “not in the dock”, Higham said the church had not reported Claffey to police but simply moved him around.

“Their priority was to bring the sinner back to the church rather than protect the children,” he said.

“The church did not report him to the police and he did not report himself to the police. Where is the evidence that he had this matter hanging over him … over the decades? Where is his sense of guilt?”

Higham noted taht Claffey initially contested the allegations for which he is now serving time, confessing only in 2016.

On Friday one of Claffey’s victims told the court he had lost faith in the church. “I felt I could not tell anyone and if I raised or complained about what happened to me, I would not be believed, I would be sinning,” the man said.

“I have lost my faith in the church … for many years I was a broken person.”

Higham thanked the man for attending court. “I reassure you that your voice is heard in this court,” he said.

The court is waiting to receive one more victim statement before Claffey is sentenced for his Ballarat crimes on 18 July.

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