Blood seen on Maria James priest suspect

·3-min read

An electrician says he saw Father Anthony Bongiorno with his hands covered in fresh blood outside a presbytery near the Melbourne bookshop where Maria James was found stabbed to death.

Allan Hircoe cannot remember exactly when he visited St Mary's presbytery in Thornbury to perform electrical work, but what he saw there has remained clear in his mind for four decades.

While working at the Rossmoyne Street property, he noticed a short, stocky man, dressed in black except for a religious collar.

"He had one sleeve pushed up, blood on both hands, and he had blood up near his ear and on the side of his neck," Mr Hircoe told an inquest into Ms James' murder on Monday.

He said there was "a lot of blood" and it "looked fresh", but he could not see a wound.

When the electrician asked the man if he was alright and "what he did", he said he had cut himself on either roses in the garden or on a fence, but Mr Hircoe cannot remember which.

"I said I had a first aid kit in the car, 'stay there and I'll get you cleaned up'," he said.

"I walked back to get the first aid kit, I turned around to look at him again and there was nobody there, he had disappeared."

He then heard a woman speaking in Italian with a "raised, urgent" voice from inside the presbytery.

"It went on for 15 seconds, almost screaming level," he said.

Shown a photo of one of six suspects named in the inquest, Mr Hircoe told the Victorian Coroners Court the man he saw that day was Catholic priest Anthony Bongiorno.

The presbytery is about 170 metres from the High Street book exchange where Ms James' body was found on June 17, 1980.

Mr Hircoe cannot remember the time, date, month or year when he saw the priest's bloody hands outside the presbytery.

He said he remembers leaving Thornbury to drive back to his workplace, where a colleague told him "something had happened on High Street" that day, with police seen in the area.

He read in news reports "that the priest could be implicated" but once police ruled out Father Bongiorno as a suspect due to a DNA bungle, Mr Hircoe decided not to say anything to police.

Many years later, after seeing a photo of the priest in a newspaper, in 2013 he told a detective friend his story.

Asked why he had waited so long to come forward, he said: "I was under the impression that priests don't do this sort of thing."

Another witness, Jan Sharp, described seeing a man dressed in black priest robes standing in the Thornbury bookshop's doorway at 11am on the day Ms James' body was found.

"My eyes met his eyes, when I realised he looked at me I looked away, it sort of freaked me out a bit," she told the inquest.

Ms Sharp said she identified the man she had seen in the doorway as Father Bongiorno after seeing old photos of him in 2017.

A man, who had been a student at a school where Father Bongiorno was priest and been molested by him, said he had asked him about the Maria James murder.

"He just went cold, like he was surprised I knew about the case, he just shut down," the man said, in a statement read out in court.

He said he believed Father Bongiorno had molested Ms James' son Adam and that he "could have done anything to keep this a secret".

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