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How convicted paedophile worked as Catholic priest for 23 years

PUBLISHED: 06:15 06 October 2018 | UPDATED: 16:35 06 October 2018

Father Cornelius O'Brien photographed during his time in New Zealand where he carried out a

Father Cornelius O'Brien photographed during his time in New Zealand where he carried out a "litany of offending" against boys before working as a priest in East Anglia. Photo: Submitted

Submitted

A convicted paedophile was able to work unchecked as a Catholic priest in Norfolk for years - despite having a history of sexually abusing boys, an investigation can reveal.

Alan Hopes, Bishop of East Anglia, said O'Brien should not have been in ministry. Photo: ArchantAlan Hopes, Bishop of East Anglia, said O'Brien should not have been in ministry. Photo: Archant

Today the Diocese of East Anglia admitted making historic mistakes in allowing Father Cornelius O’Brien to work as a priest in the county in the 1980s. He also returned to do parish work in Norfolk in 2000, but by then authorities were aware of his past and his duties were ‘restricted’.

Abuse allegations were made about him in 1976, as well as by victims coming forward years later in 2004, 2010 and 2016. O’Brien died in Wymondham in 2012, aged 77.

O’Brien first abused boys while a priest near Christchurch, New Zealand, in the 1960s and 70s.

In 1976 he was convicted of a sex offence against a 10-year-old boy and was sentenced to two years probation in New Zealand.

At that point, he was sent to England and continued working as a priest for decades, including in the Diocese of East Anglia from 1981.

But the full extent of his abuse is only now emerging after a victim came forward and the New Zealand church investigated.

An investigation by the Christchurch Diocese in 2017, which has now been seen by this newspaper, found O’Brien engaged in a “litany of offending against young boys” in the 1960s and 70s.

In 2010 an adult also made an allegation to the Diocese of East Anglia about O’Brien dating back to the 1980s. Police investigated and took no further action.

The diocese said it was not aware of O’Brien’s past when he came to Norfolk in 1981 and they did not find out about his child abuse conviction until 2000.

And it was not until 2004, when another one of O’Brien’s victims complained to the church in New Zealand, the diocese there warned their UK counterparts.

After leaving New Zealand following his conviction he worked in the Diocese of Brentwood.

He then came to Norfolk in 1981 and was chaplain at the Carmelite convent at Quidenham, south Norfolk, from 1981 until September 1984.

After that he worked at the Convent of Jesus and Mary in Felixstowe and in 1985 he moved out of the diocese.

The diocese said it had refused at the time to formally make him a priest for them because of his “style of ministry”.

When he retired in 1999 he returned to Norfolk.

In 2000 he disclosed his conviction to the police when he became more involved in parish work in Norfolk, the diocese said.

Bishop of East Anglia Rt Rev Alan Hopes, said: “Although never formally a priest of the diocese, Fr O’Brien would undoubtedly have been involved in the parishes in which he lived.

“When his conviction was disclosed in 2000, steps were taken to restrict his ministry.

“It is fair to say that by the more rigorous standards of safeguarding which we rightly follow today, more should have been done to ascertain his history and he should not have been in any form of public ministry.”

O’Brien raped one boy aged four in a campaign of abuse over 13 years in New Zealand.

Another one of O’Brien’s victims in New Zealand, George Russell, 58, said he was abused in 1972.

Mr Russell said he had “buried” the abuse for most of his life, but confronted it after a breakdown, he told Radio New Zealand for the first time last month.

The church’s file into Mr Russell’s case said O’Brien had “a history of abusing boys”.

In 2004 the Christchurch Diocese traced him to East Anglia and warned the Diocese here, Christchurch Bishop Paul Martin told Radio New Zealand last month.

“They kept asking for reports on him,” he said. “In 2004 when the complaint came in here, that complaint then went to England and he was not allowed to be in ministry.”

O’Brien, who lived in a bungalow on Folly Road, Wymondham, opposite the High School, denied the abuse when one victim came forward in 2004. He threatened to sue the victim.

The electoral roll shows he was living in Folly Road from at least 2002 onwards and some of his neighbours remember him well.

Ernest Spurgeon, 90, said: “I don’t know much about him. Bit of a character.

“He was Irish and he was always joking with me, calling me all sorts of names.

“He was a jovial chap. He lived alone and he didn’t socialise a great deal.”

Another neighbour remembered him as a “pleasant man”.

Another said: “I got on very well with him and all the neighbours did.”

Bishop Alan added: “The safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults is of paramount importance to the Catholic Church and this diocese. There are robust national safeguarding procedures in place and we always follow-up any complaint and co-operate fully with any police investigation.”

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