Former Catholic priest Peter Hercock found guilty of grooming and raping schoolgirls

By Jimmy Ellingham

The offending happened in the 1970s and 1980s in the Hutt Valley, Wellington, against four Sacred Heart pupils. Photo / iStock
The offending happened in the 1970s and 1980s in the Hutt Valley, Wellington, against four Sacred Heart pupils. Photo / iStock

She went to him for help, counselling and support, but instead the chaplain at a Catholic girl's school raped the vulnerable young teenage girl.

He raped her with his "wretched Leonard Cohen" album playing in the background and his priestly robes hanging in the presbytery room.

Ten years later he raped her in a Women's Refuge safe house as her children slept next to her.

Peter Joseph Hercock, a former priest, was jailed for six years and seven months after earlier admitting charges of rape, attempted rape and indecently assaulting a girl. Photo / Jimmy Ellingham
Peter Joseph Hercock, a former priest, was jailed for six years and seven months after earlier admitting charges of rape, attempted rape and indecently assaulting a girl. Photo / Jimmy Ellingham

More than 40 years ago, when attending Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt, Ann-Marie Shelley turned to Peter Joseph Hercock, 72, for help.

Instead, he groomed her, always joking "I'll see you in pieces" rather than the usual "I'll see you in peace".

Today, Ms Shelley said she got her own back: "I'll see you in pieces" she said to Hercock, as he stared gun-barrel straight ahead while standing in the Wellington District Court dock, avoiding eye contact with those recalling the effects of his crimes.

Hercock, a former priest, was jailed by Judge Bill Hastings for six years and seven months after earlier admitting two charges of rape, one of attempted rape and four of indecently assaulting a girl aged between 12 and 16.

The offending happened in the 1970s and 1980s in the Hutt Valley, Wellington, against four Sacred Heart pupils.

Ms Shelley's automatic name suppression was overturned by the judge, allowing the 60-year-old grandmother to tell her story in full today, which she did in a victim impact statement.

"I'm here today because I never gave up hope for you being held accountable for the pain and damage you have caused to not only my early life, but to other people in this courtroom," Ms Shelley told Hercock.

She thought the young Hercock, posted to her school, was a "real priest", a counsellor that could help the "distressed, vulnerable" 14-year-old.

But Hercock was no such thing and for two years he groomed her. After a young Ms Shelley fell pregnant in 1974 and then had her baby taken away for adoption, she went to him for help.

Instead he raped her.

A decade later she was living in emergency accommodation after escaping an abusive marriage. Again, she asked him for help. Again, he raped her, at the safe house.

Ms Shelley thought she led a holy man to sin - feelings other victims told the court about - but after a period of using drugs and alcohol and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, she sought justice.

"You broke me, but after today I can begin putting myself back together."

Three other victims read statements about the effect on their lives, with one woman saying she was scolded by the Catholic Church for being a "Jezebel".

Crown prosecutor Emma Light said the offending involved a "gross breach of trust" as Hercock was someone vulnerable victims should have been able to go to for support.

The offending was premeditated, happened over a number of years and in some cases involved girls been plied with alcohol.

Hercock had written letters of apology and offered $16,000 reparation to the victims. Ms Light said three accepted the offer, while one did not.

Defence lawyer Tony Bamford said Hercock was 17 when he became a priest. He took on the role as a counsellor as a young man and the lawyer wondered why the church thought that appropriate.

"He left the church in his 30s recognising the hypocrisy of his life and recognising his vow of celibacy was an absolute nonsense," Mr Bamford said.

"He has led an otherwise positive and contributing existence."

But as a young boy, aged 8 or 9, Hercock was himself sexually abused by a Protestant minister and that affected what went on in the Hutt Valley.

His "personal issues" meant his "boundaries were well and truly blurred".

Three of the four victims in court came forward in 2003, but two years before Hercock began his own process to address what he did.

"He's not a man trying to hide away and never has been," Mr Bamford said, adding Hercock's response to the victims was "they are not to blame, I hurt them".

Mr Bamford said Hercock, who has no previous convictions, was entitled to a reduction in sentence because of his remorse and reparation offer.

Judge Hastings apologised to everyone present for the explicit details in the court summary of offending before he read through what Hercock did. His crimes began in the early 1970s and continued until 1984 when Hercock raped Ms Shelley.

He attempted to rape another girl and even slapped her across the face when she resisted.

That girl was expelled from school and felt betrayed Hercock didn't take responsibility for what he did.

Another victim was at one point told Hercock was giving her up for lent.

In 2003, a church process resulted in Ms Shelley receiving a $25,000 payment from the church. Two other victims received $31,000 and $30,000 respectively.

Judge Hastings said Hercock had caused lasting emotional and psychological harm, but have him credit for remorse, participation in the church investigation, letters of apology, offer of reparation and guilty pleas.

"You were out of your depth," the judge told Hercock.

"I accept that this may explain the context in which your actions took place but I do not accept that this excuses your actions in any way.

"You may have been a naive, ill-prepared priest but you are also a human being. There's a bed rock of acceptable behaviour under which decent human beings do not go.

"You knew what you were doing and knew it was wrong. You stole from these women something that makes all of us more human -- the ability to have lasting, satisfying, mutually supportive relationships. You also stole their faith. There can be no greater hypocrisy for a priest."

Away from court, Ms Shelley told One News she grew up in a Catholic environment - all her friends were in the church and her social circle was church-based.
Yet she was sexually offended against by one of God's representatives on earth.

"The hardest thing for me is it left me so isolated and I couldn't talk to anybody about what had happened because I just assumed that nobody would ever believe me and you assume that you're the only one that this has happened to.

"I felt different to everyone else."

Victims advocate Louise Nicholas told reporters outside court Ms Shelley was brave to waive name suppression, although rape survivors had nothing to be ashamed about.

Ms Nicholas became involved in helping Hercock's victims a couple of years ago. She said Ms Shelley was an amazing woman.

"She's like a dog with a bone and she wasn't going to give up until she stood here today."

- NZ Herald

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