Jury convicts Fletcher of sexual abuse counts

Jury convicts Fletcher of sexual abuse counts

CATHOLIC parish priest James Patrick Fletcher sat emotionless in the East Maitland District Court dock yesterday as he was convicted of nine sexual abuse charges.
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There were sighs of relief and tears from two victims and their families as Fletcher was led by corrective service officers from the courtroom.

He will be held in custody until March 11 when he will be formally sentenced by Judge Graham Armitage.

Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Bishop Michael Malone apologised yesterday to the victims, their families and friends “for the immense pain and suffering caused by Father Fletcher’s criminal actions”.

Fletcher, 63, of Crebert Street, Mayfield, pleaded not guilty to eight charges of having homosexual intercourse with a child aged between 10 and 18 and one count of committing an act of indecency with the same boy when he was 13.

These offences occurred at several Hunter locations about 15 years ago.

A victim, now 28, said Fletcher engaged in oral and anal sex and masturbation with him.

Another Lower Hunter man, now 30, told the court Fletcher performed oral sex on him twice as a 13-year-old during overnight stays in the Upper Hunter.

In a videotaped interview with police played during the trial, Fletcher denied all accusations, saying he had never done anything of a sexual nature with anyone.

He denied discussing sexual matters with a child, telling one victim that the incidents were their special time together and making threats to a boy about harm to members of his family if he told anyone what had happened.

A jury of four women and eight men took about 17 hours to reach their verdict.

Bishop Malone said Fletcher would not return to ministry and a toll-free telephone number (1800 234 050) had been set up so people could discuss their response to the situation with professional facilitators and counsellors.

“While Father Fletcher has been found guilty I am conscious that further legal processes are to be followed before matters are finalised,” the bishop said.

“There is the sentencing process, which in itself is a mini-trial involving the taking of further evidence and submissions on what penalties will be appropriate for the court to impose.

“Just as healing must take place for victims, it must also take place for the entire diocesan community, people and priests alike, in fact, the broader community will be experiencing a range of feelings hurt, anger, fear, confusion.”

Two victims, who gave evidence in the trial, and the mother of the one to whom the nine charges related, all expressed great relief when the verdict was handed down.

Detective Sergeant Peter Fox read a statement on behalf of the victims that said in part they believed justice had been done.

“Much of the pain and suffering for the victims and their families can now be put behind them,” he said.

“We hope that all of us can now move forward unhindered by these dreadful events.”

Sergeant Fox commended the courage of the victims in coming forward and going through the court process.

Bishop Malone encouraged people seeking information or help about abuse matters to contact police or a church help line on 1300 369 977.