On the same day she was brutally murdered behind her Melbourne bookshop almost 40 years ago, a furious Maria James was set to confront the local Catholic priest for allegedly touching her 11-year-old son.
The 38-year-old mother’s arrival at St Mary’s church in the northern Melbourne suburb of Thornbury stopped anything happening in a small room behind the altar, but Adam revealed his abuse on their short walk home.
On the day she was murdered by an “unknown person”, Adam heard his upset mother phone Father Anthony Bongiorno, later promising her son she would confront his abuser.
By the end of the day, the assistant parish priest was collecting the boys from school to break the grim news their mother had died. Days later he conducted their mother’s funeral.
Father Bongiorno was considered and ruled out as a suspect more than once over the years that followed.
But fresh information revealed in the popular podcast Trace, led by ABC investigative reporter Rachael Brown, has prompted the case’s re-opening amid a darkening cloud of suspicion hanging over not one but two priests.
Complicating the investigation – and dooming any realistic hope of identifying the killer – was a DNA test that Victoria Police have since admitted was hopelessly botched.
Acting Coroner Iain West on Friday said he would open a coronial investigation under recent legislation that allows cold cases to be reviewed in the light of new facts or circumstances.
“I think Mum is probably looking down from heaven and she’s probably very happy,” son Mark told reporters.
In another shocking revelation, electrician Allan Hircoe, who was working at St Mary’s on the day of the murder, told the Trace podcast that he saw Father Bongiorno with blood splattered on his face, hands and arm.
The sighting, he said, was a mere 50 metres from Ms James’ second-hand bookshop on High Street, the main shopping strip in what was then a solidly working class neighbourhood.
Mr Hircoe said the priest claimed to have cut himself on a wire fence. But when he returned with a first aid-kit, Father Bongiorno was gone.
Police did not consider the priest a suspect at the time of the murder, although detectives re-interviewed him in 1998. By 2007 he was considered “a person of interest”, the ABC reported.
Mr Bongiorno, who died of natural causes in 2002, was cleared as a suspect in Ms James’ murder after police mistakenly used a bloodied pillowcase from a different murder scene as part of their forensic investigation aimed at establishing the killer’s DNA profile.
Last year, Victoria Police admitted they had been responsible for a massive bungle.
Mark told the podcast he had long believed there would never be a resolution to the case – until a family friend cast suspicion on the assistant parish priest.
The church, just down the road from Ms James’ bookshop, had been a big part of the family’s life. Ms James was a devout Catholic and frequent churchgoer while Mark served as an altar boy and Father Bongiorno often looked after 11-year-old Adam.
In 2013, Mark discussed their mother’s murder with Adam, who has cerebral palsy and Tourette syndrome, asking if Father Bongiorno had touched him inappropriately.
Mark told the podcast Adam’s account of events on that fatal day so long ago felt “as if a bomb had gone off”. He also recalled his mother’s enigmatic remark that “if anything happens to me” he was to make sure Adam was looked after.
“Mum appeared to know she was in some type of a danger,” he said.
The sons hope the revived investigation will consider Father Bongiorno, the conduct of the police investigation and the activities of second priest, who was never a murder-case suspect but who also allegedly touched Adam.