A Catholic priest who admitted biting off the ear of a fellow priest has been fined $1000 and given a spent conviction after a magistrate agreed that a form of dementia had caused the crime.
Thomas Henry Byrne, 81, was sentenced in Perth Magistrate's Court this morning on a charge of assault occasioning bodily harm laid after a scuffle he had with the victim which was sparked by a dispute over a sprinkler at the complex where both men lived in November.
Magistrate Steven Heath was told today that Byrne, who joined the Catholic church aged 18 in Ireland and came to Australia in 1956, had been supported by a string of references which showed his behaviour had been out of character for the kind and compassionate man.
The court was told that a report found the crime had been caused by undiagnosed frontal lobe dementia which is different to Alzheimers disease and causes out-of-character behaviour.
The condition had been difficult to notice before the incident because symptoms could be subtle and the priest lived alone, the court heard.
A police prosecutor said that on November 9, a dispute arose when the victim moved some concrete blocks that had been protecting a sprinkler system previously damaged at the Dianella complex.
A scuffle occurred, with both men on the ground, when Father Byrne bit the other priest's right ear and "severed it completely", the prosecutor said.
Surgery was successful in reattaching the victim's ear, which had been collected by its owner after the scuffle.
Defence lawyer Seamus Rafferty told the court that the charge against his client was downgraded from grievous bodily harm after the injuries did not sustain the more serious charge.
He said his client, who pleaded guilty, was deeply ashamed at the affect his behaviour had on the Catholic church, and asked that he be granted a spent conviction in light of the uniqueness of the situation and mitigating factors.
"It would be extremely sad for his reputation be sullied as a result of his mental illness," he submitted.
Mr Rafferty said it was difficult to understand how a man who had devoted the majority of his life to the seminary could be involved in such a serious incident.
But the answer lay in a psychologist's report, he said, which identified Father Byrne had been suffering from undiagnosed frontal lobe dementia which affected judgment and character.
The court heard that one character reference suggested Father Byrne's behaviour showed he was human. Another described him as a genuine and kind man who had never before been the subject of even gossip.
Father Byrne, who will be spared a conviction as a result of the magistrate's decision, declined to comment as he left court with a group of supporters.