‘Haunted house on the hill’: Rachel Griffiths describes abuse history at destroyed Melbourne church
The destruction of St James Church in Brighton would be a relief to many former parishioners because of its history of sexual abuse, actress and former parishioner Rachel Griffiths has told 774 ABC Melbourne. The heritage-listed church was destroyed in an early morning blaze that took hours for fire crews to bring under control.
A heritage-listed church in Melbourne’s south-east has been destroyed in an early morning blaze, with fire crews able to only save the building’s facade. More than 20 fire trucks and 80 firefighters were called to the 124-year-old St James Church on the corner of North Road and St James Close in Brighton.
Incident controller Ken Brown said it was a very sad morning for the community. “The church looks like it’s totally destroyed at this stage,” he said. Onlookers heard loud crashes and it appeared parts of the roof had collapsed inside the old bluestone building. “We’ll have a building inspector down to try and do what we can to protect the facade,” Mr Brown said.
“But the entire inside and the spires are all really badly damaged by this fire.” Authorities said the fire was being treated as suspicious.
The church is located next to St James Catholic Primary School and close to Star of the Sea College, but the MFB said the fire was not currently posing a threat to the school. It is currently school holidays in Victoria, so students are not near the fire.
MFB spokesperson David Jarwood said the smoke could be seen from 50 kilometres away. Road closures remain in place on surrounding streets and Mr Jarwood said people should avoid the area. He said the bluestone building likely had “a lot of wood on the inside”. “We got called at about 6:40am and we’ve been steadily increasing resources out there. It’s a pretty big fire,” he said. Fire crews are also inspecting nearby residents’ yards for embers, the MFB said.
The Roman Catholic Church, is described by the Victorian Heritage Database as a site of “great importance in the early history of Catholicism in Victoria”.
Ms Griffiths said when she heard the news of the fire, she went to visit a friend who lives a couple of doors down from the church. “I was quite elated, like many of my generation, when I heard the news this morning,” she said. “It’s always been a difficult building for us to drive past because there’s been so much tragedy and complicated feelings, I guess.
“We’ve all attended many funerals of boys that we now know were abused by [Father Ronald] Pickering and other perpetrators in the parish – at the actual church that it occurred in.”
Authorities say the cause of the fire is being treated as suspicious and police are now investigating.
Ms Griffiths said she was still a practicing Catholic, but had not been a member of the St James parish for many years. “We’ve all avoided being married here and found other churches and it’s kind of been a bit of a thorn, I think, to see it standing,” she said.
ST JAMES CHURCH: ABUSE AND SUICIDES!!
Ronald Pickering was a priest in Melbourne, including St James Church, for more than 40 years before he emigrated to Britain in the 1990s.
The Catholic Church has since admitted that he was guilty of sexual abuse, but he was never brought to trial before his death in 2009.
A 2013 Victorian government inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organizations heard that Pickering had preyed on young boys at St James Church in the late 1970s and 80s.
Raymond De Brass told the inquiry that as a choir and altar boy aged between 9 and 13, he was regularly abused by Pickering from 1979. “He groomed me by giving me cigarettes, money and alcohol,” Mr De Brass said.
“Over this four-year period I am aware that two other boys were also sexually abused by Father Ronald Pickering. “I was regularly fondled and petted by Pickering, as were other boys. “This occurred within the change rooms of the church and within the presbytery. “I began smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol with Pickering from the age of nine and on many occasions passed out from consuming the alcohol, which left me vulnerable to such abuse.”
Mr De Brass also told the inquiry that another boy that was abused died after Pickering provided him money for drugs. “Around 1987 to 1988 I lost contact with one of the boys who was abused at [St James], but I was aware that he was still getting money from Pickering and was now using it to purchase heroin,” he said.
“I would later learn that this boy died from a heroin overdose in 1992.”
But Griffiths said she could not relate to the callers who rang in to express their sorrow.
I think my grandmother’s generation were absolutely horrified to find out their grandsons were abused, and suicides,” she said.
Griffiths said she was now part of the Catholic community in Elwood and St Kilda, after her family left the St James Church when she was a young woman.
“My mother was told after my father left our family that [the priest] wouldn’t have a divorced woman in the church and I think that’s probably one thing that saved our family that so many of my friends’ brothers got involved with,” she said. “We stopped going because he stopped my mother at the door.”
She said in light of the “tremendous work” of the royal commission into sex abuse, the sight of the St James Church smoking was a “relief”.
“I really hope that we can heal and move forward and I think that’s why this particular fire – to create a metaphor – it’s sometimes out of the burning ruins that something true and authentic can be reborn and I hope that’s true for this parish,” Griffiths said.
A POPULAR LOCAL CHURCH: PARISHIONER
Tony Conquest told reporters at the scene of the fire that he was married at the church 47 years ago. He said about 150 people attended mass at the parish each Saturday night. “[I’m] a bit stunned, I suppose,” he said.
“Like anything else you never expect [the church] you’ve been to, last Saturday week suddenly and completely gutted.”
Joan from Toorak called 774 ABC Melbourne to say she was distressed to hear about the fire.
“I woke up this morning and was horrified to hear about the church that I was married in, today, March 30, 56 years ago. Um, bizarre – not a very good omen, is it?”
“It is a fine complex of Roman Catholic church, rectory and church close, mostly dating from the last century but with additions made in 1908 and in the 1920s,” the site said. “The nave was built in 1891 to the design of the architect Edgar J Henderson followed by the transepts and chancel in 1924, designed by Schreiber and Jorgensen.”
Kate, who lives in the neighborhood, said the church would be a significant loss to the area. “I want to cry, it’s sad and horrible,” she said. “To think how would it ever have started, something like that doesn’t start itself. “The people will be very upset around here, because it’s very very busy.” The heritage database said the church contained a rare pipe organ by Alfred Fuller of Kew.