Neerkol Orphanage – Royal Commission Findings

Aaron Kernaghan, Lawyer for some of the
survivors of child abuse at the Neerkol Orphanage in
Rockhampton, says that “the Catholic Church
must now respond with genuine acts of contrition.”

For more comments, see below.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have tabled its report on Case Study 26. The Royal Commission held a public hearing in Rockhampton between Tuesday, 14 April 2015 and Wednesday, 22 April 2015.

The public hearing inquired into the experiences of a number of men and women who were resident at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Neerkol operated by the Sisters of Mercy between 1940 and 1975.

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An ironic photo of the orphanage at Neerkol – from ABC Online.

In their report, the Commissioners found that:


“Given that:

i. there was no evidence of any written reports of suspected physical or sexual abuse of children being received by the state up and until the time of closure of the orphanage

ii. there was no evidence of any action taken which could or may relate to the receipt of any report (written or otherwise)

iii. the state could not locate any records which referred to or discussed any policies and/ or procedures for the reporting of physical or sexual abuse of children up and until the closure of the orphanage in 1978 (despite having found a range of other documents relating to the running of the orphanage),

we are satisfied it is likely there were no departmental policies or procedures issued by the Queensland Government for how institutions such as the orphanage should carry out their obligations to report abuse.”

The Commissioners also found that the Queensland Government failed to adequately supervise and protect from harm the children for whom it was guardian in the orphanage by not ensuring adequately trained staff were employed as department inspectors and by not ensuring that it provided adequate scrutiny over the circumstances in which the children were living.

Tragically, the finding extends to include the departmental officers who failed to provide a system of supervision for the delivery of care to children in the orphanage which would properly guard against the children being mistreated and thereby suffering harm.

In a damning conclusion, the Commissioners said that,

We are satisfied that some children at the orphanage did not report the sexual abuse to anyone at the time it was occurring because:

• they had little or no opportunity to speak with the state department inspectors because their visits were infrequent

• they did not think they would be believed

• they were frightened of reprisals from the Sisters or employees at the orphanage if they complained of sexual and physical abuse.

We are also satisfied that children who did complain of physical and/or sexual abuse to a department inspector, a Sister, a priest or police were not believed and/or were often punished by the Sister or priest for reporting the abuse. For those who made reports and were punished or not believed, not only is there evidence that this caused those children further mental and emotional harm but also it placed all children in the home at risk of ongoing sexual abuse. The failure to properly respond to the children’s complaints caused them further mental and emotional harm and placed the children at further risk of sexual abuse.

Bishop Heenan – Photo from Brisbane Times

Regarding the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy (who operated the orphanage at Neerkol), the Royal Commission concluded that before mid to late 1996, Bishop Heenan, as the Bishop of Rockhampton, and Sister Loch, as the Congregational Leader of the Sisters of Mercy, received little or no training in understanding child sexual abuse and responding to complaints of child sexual abuse. That lack of training in detecting and responding to child sexual abuse undermined their capacity to deal effectively with complaints of sexual abuse by former residents of the orphanage between 1993 and mid to late 1996.


Bishop Heenan has been found responsible for an entirely negligent course of conduct. After receiving a complaint of child sexual abuse in June 1993 (AYB) and accepting the truthfulness of her complaint in early 1994, Bishop Heenan failed to take steps to place any restrictions on Father Durham’s contact with children within the ministry. In particular, from June 1993 until May 1996 he did not:

• report the matter to the police (although this was at the request of AYB) or encourage AYB to do so

• organise for Father Durham to vacate the presbytery

• suspend or restrict Father Durham’s ministry within the Diocese. 15 Report of Case Study No. 26

The Royal Commission found that by failing to place any restrictions on Father Durham’s contact with children or report the matter to the police, Bishop Heenan placed other children at risk of sexual abuse.

One particular incident, attributed to Sister Loch of the Sisters of Mercy revealed the inadequate and dissembling response of the Sister (who holds an Australian Honour). Some Sisters  had approached Sister Loch about their experiences working at the orphanage. On 13 November 1996, Sister Loch made notes of a conversation she had with Sister Cordelia, a former supervisor at the orphanage. Sister Loch noted that Sister Cordelia told her ‘she remembers a senior boy “trying to tell me” about “Kevin” doing things he should not and “his father wanted something done about it”’. Sister Loch also wrote: ‘Cordelia was not at all specific and very vague on name, years etc. but she described an older boy who was on staff caring and said he since worked in the railway, married a nice girl etc.’. Sister Loch also noted that ‘it is almost certainly Kevin Baker she is describing’. Sister Loch noted that, although one or more of the former residents had raised complaints against Mr Baker and the police were investigating, she did not pass the information on to the police because she did not believe the information was likely to be relevant. The Commissioners concluded that Sister Loch should have provided this information to the police and that a failure to do so was an inappropriate response.

Aaron Kernaghan, solicitor for two of the Survivors of abuse at Neerkol Orphanage and whose cross examination of Bishop Heenan went viral on Youtube, greeted the release of the Royal Commission report,

“My clients, Margaret Campbell and Thomas Murnane, have walked a very long road toward shining a light on the shadows in which this orphanage ran. That light has revealed a litany of criminal behaviour – understood at the time as criminal – and vindicated their long fight for justice. Troubling has been the extent to which the Royal Commission’s investigation has revealed that the shadowy behaviour continued for years following the victimization of these children, in the reprehensible and compassionless way in which a Bishop of the Church and one of the most senior members of the Sisters of Mercy orchestrated and conducted a response to the attempts of child abuse victims to seek justice.”

Kernaghan, who has continued to provide pro bono assistance to Margaret Campbell in her ongoing fight to have her alleged abuser finally brought to trial, said,

“It will rarely be sufficient to claim that ‘we didn’t know then what we now know’. It has always been a crime to abuse children, it has always been wrong and most importantly for an institution like the Catholic Church and the Sisters of Mercy, it has always been a sin. To not recognise the sinfulness of the abuse and the conditions into which these most vulnerable of all children were abandoned by the State of Queensland, is to do more than simply ignore the awful reality – it is a cynical act of betrayal of the trust and faith of the many people, and their families who have been crushed by the weight of their victimization.”

The Report of the Royal Commission into Neerkol has been tabled and is now in the public domain where, says Aaron Kernaghan, the work must continue.

“We know of the history of Neerkol now in a way that Australians didn’t previously fully realise. The good work of the Royal Commission provides a starting point for the work that must now follow. It also provides the Catholic Church in Australia with the potential for a departure-point – an opportunity to do things differently and set about attempting meaningful acts of contrition that may go some way toward restoring the confidence and faith many Australians place in such an important cultural and spiritual institution. 

For my clients, their lives have been marked by hardship, difficulties in confronting the day-to-day living that comes with being haunted by a past filled with violence and deprivation. Margaret Campbell stands ready to receive the help of the church in meeting her ongoing medical costs and expenses – an act of care and protection that the Church and the Sisters of Mercy did not afford her when they were responsible for her as a child. A compassionate church, a sensible organisation and a modern institution can reasonably be expected to reach out and to provide that care so that she doesn’t have to continue to pay for her medical needs out of her own purse. 

The real test for the institution will be how to ensure it does not pay mere lip-service to the findings of the Royal Commission and deliver on its founding promise of being a place of service in the needs of others.”

Mr Kernaghan also welcomed the Royal Commission’s indication that they intended to consider further aspects of the case that were revealed during the public hearings – including the involvement of Mr Brian Lucas and the functioning (or dysfunction) of the criminal justice system.

“Ms Campbell in particular has found a new opportunity to have her voice heard and she is genuinely pleased that her efforts with the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions and the Queensland Attorney General have been received with respect and all due consideration. The future will tell what course those efforts take, but for now, Ms Campbell is pleased to see that substantial findings have been made that place the burden of expectation upon the Queensland Government to reform its criminal justice provisions to bring them into line with the other States and Territories and to render a more perfect system for the detection and punishment of child abusers.

The report should serve as a warning bell for those abusers hiding in the community who hope that the passage of time will provide them with a chance of escape from their criminal acts. Those acts continue to sound down through the decades and even now, accountability is near for those who are guilty and a fair trial for those who are not.”

A copy of the full report of the Royal Commission can be found here.

Media inquiries should be directed to Kernaghan & Associates: (02)42440339.