Gasps of shock went through the Perth District Court on Tuesday after a former Catholic priest was convicted for historic sex crimes, then had his 13-month sentence to prison wholly suspended.
Allan John Mithen, 81, had entered a guilty plea to two counts of indecent assault for the sexual abuse of a 15-year old teenage Aboriginal girl at a mission in 1965.
Mithen was charged for the sexual assault of four Aboriginal girls at the Wandering Mission outside Perth during the 1960s. However, the statements of three of the alleged complaints no longer applied.
In his sentencing remarks, Judge Laurie Levy describe the young girl – referred to throughout proceedings only as Ms W – as a “vulnerable child” who had been removed from her family and placed at Wandering.
Rather than protecting the young girl, said Judge Levy, the accused “sexually, physically, emotionally and psychologically abused her.”
The judge said Mithen had introduced sexual education at the mission and one of the sexual assaults on the victim occurred after one of those classes.
In her victim impact statement, Ms W described herself as “young, vulnerable, innocent and naive” and said she was “confused and sickened” from the abuse by Mithen.
Ms W said at one point she went to another priest at the mission for help, but was instead told by him that she would “burn in hell” for her sins.
Judge Levy also said Mithen, at the time the abuse occurred, “contrived to be alone” with the victim over the course of six months and that the abuse only ended once the girl was able to get a full-time job and leave the mission.
The judge also said he had struggled with Mithen’s issue of remorse after the former priest initially suggested the victim was lying.
Judge Levy also acknowledged Mithen had a clean record prior to this case and had made significant contributions to the Indigenous community since the time of the offences, including in Redfern around the issue of domestic abuse.
The judge also noted the court proceedings had taken an impact on the now 81-year old.
The court also heard Mithen ailed from a number of "significant and arduous medical problems" which would require constant medical attention and which would make him vulnerable if imprisoned.
“Imprisonment would be a greater burden on you than normal prisoners,” said Judge Levy.
The court heard Mithen had been asked to leave his residence of 10 years, had lost his standing in the Catholic church, and is prevented from celebrating mass. Mithen had also spent three days in custody before being granted bail, said the judge before sentencing the former priest to a jail term of 13-months.
“Community standards have changed significantly since 1965,” said Judge Levy after the sentencing.
He then announced Mithen's sentence would be suspended for 15 months, making it possible for the Melbourne man to return to his home in Victoria.
Mithen will now be reported to the sex offenders register.
Dr Hannah McGlade, a senior Indigenous Researcher Fellow at Curtin University in WA, told NITV prior to the sentencing that it was a historic day for the West Australian Aboriginal community.
“We don’t know any other cases which they (non- Aboriginal perpetrators) were charged for ... sexual violence against Aboriginal children. This is the first time,” she said.
“For us, this is a historic day that finally someone will be found guilty, one person in the history. There may never be another."
That initial hope soon lead to disappointment, as supporters for the victims who had gathered in silent vigil outside the court were left disheartened by the sentence and its suspension.
“We’re disgusted, we’re really offended that a serious offender ... just got off,” Dr McGlade said.
“He got off without even a short term in prison and it just makes you feel once again that there is no justice for Aboriginal people in West Australia.”
Dr McGlade and other supporters said they were left angered by comments made by Judge Levy, who said Mithen had “contributed to society and the lives of Indigenous Australians”.
Dr McGlade said as a Noongar woman, she found the comments "insensitive" and "outrageous".
“The man [Mithen] ... took advantage of his position as a priest," she said.