In 1978 the Hilton Hotel bombing in Sydney shocked Australians and became known as the country’s first terror attack, killing three people. There were theories and speculation about who was behind the bombing, but for more than a decade it remained an unsolved crime. In a surprising turn of events, Brisbane priest Fr Jim Browne found himself at the centre of a fresh investigation as a suspect came forward to claim responsibility.
IN 1989, Fr Jim Browne was the parish priest at St Ita’s, Dutton Park – one of the nine Brisbane city and country parishes where he served, honing his skills as a caring pastor.
Fr Browne, now 83 years old, has always had a keen eye and a practical view of life.
As a teenager he had spent time on his uncle’s farm at Goondiwindi where he learnt to ride, shoot and muster.
He did his national service in the air force where he trained as a marksman, and then taught in schools before finding his vocation.
On the evening of May 31, 1989, Fr Browne received a call from a woman asking if her husband could come for an urgent talk.
Soon after, 31-year-old Evan Pederick, husband, father of two nine-year-old boys, and a former member of the little-known eastern sect Ananda Marga, arrived by taxi at St Ita’s.
Fr Browne knew at once that the young man standing at his presbytery door was suffering greatly.
Inside, Mr Pederick started to confess his role in the Hilton Hotel bombing that had taken place 11 years before and had faded from most Australians’ memories.
He had never told his story to anyone before, and Fr Browne listened intently.
“He just wanted to get rid of the guilt he had been carrying all of these years. He just wanted to confess,” Fr Browne recalls.
“I believed him. I believed that he had been involved in it alright.
“He explained enough about how he’d done it for me to realise that, yes, he had been involved in it.”
Mr Pederick told the priest that at the time of the bombing, he was a member of the Ananda Marga – “the Path of Bliss” – a cult founded in India and dedicated in worship to a now-dead retired Indian railway clerk named Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar.
While meditation, education and spiritual enlighten were some of the Ananda Marga aims, the path for some of its radical adherents had veered into political violence.
Ananda Marga had been under scrutiny almost from the moment the cult arrived in Australia about 1973 and began attracting hundreds of acolytes.
At the time, Fr Browne knew nothing about the cult or its leader, simply referred to as Baba, who had been imprisoned in India for his radical, anti-government activities.
Mr Pederick explained to Fr Browne how he had attended Ananda Marga retreats, become a Baba devotee and had been recruited from inside to assassinate the then prime minister of India, Morarji Desai, who was staying at the Hilton Hotel, attending a summit of Commonwealth Heads of State.
According to Mr Pederick, another young Australian Tim Anderson had recruited him, while a man called Abhiik Kumar was the likely mastermind.
Mr Pederick told Fr Browne details of the Hilton attack – how he planted the bomb in a rubbish bin outside the Hilton Hotel in Sydney’s busy George Street.
He claimed Mr Anderson had planned the attack, organised explosives and a remote-control device to deliver the blast.
Instead of killing Prime Minister Desai, the bomb exploded when the bin was emptied into a garbage truck outside the hotel at 12.40am on February 13, 1978, killing two garbage collectors Alec Carter and William Favell.
A policeman guarding the entrance to the hotel lounge, Paul Burmistriw, died later.
The blast also injured 11 others.
Secret kept hidden for more than a decade until conscience kicks in
After the botched assassination attempt Mr Pederick fled back to Brisbane, and in the decade since had kept it all a secret.
He had broken from the spell of the Ananda Marga, tried to change his life, but the horror of his actions played on his mind, wracked his soul, and caused his marriage to crumble.
Fr Browne listened intently to Mr Pederick’s story.
The young man was distressed and confused.
Fr Browne could tell he was also remorseful, ready to own his guilt and with a desire to reconcile with God.
Fr Browne did not doubt the story, “not the fact that he (Pederick) did it, but the fact that he was of a misguided conscience”.
“A bit like these ISIS people. They are duty bound to kill because that’s what they see as God’s will for them,” he said.
“Therefore if they fail to kill they fail to do God’s will.
“Now it’s hard for us to even begin to understand that, but that’s the reality they’re talking about.”
Mr Pederick also spoke of his anxiety, and the impact that admitting to the crime would have on his wife and sons.
But he knew it was time to face up to what he had done.
After confessing to his part in the attack, Mr Pederick asked Fr Browne to call the police.
He was taken to Brisbane police headquarters where he spent three hours retelling his story to detectives.
What had triggered this extraordinary confession?
Earlier that evening, Mr Pederick had watched the lead story on the TV news about his former Ananda Marga associate Tim Anderson.
Mr Anderson was out on bail after spending time behind bars for another crime – the alleged bombing of a member of the far-right National Front of Australia.
But a convicted bank-robber and serial escapee Ray Denning came forward with claims that Mr Anderson had confessed to the Hilton bombing while the pair were in jail together.
So on May 31, based on Mr Denning’s evidence, Mr Anderson was re-arrested and charged with murder over the Hilton bombing.
Wracked with guilt for what had really happened, Mr Pederick knew the past was finally catching up with him – it was finally time to confess.
Priest says Evan Pederick “both innocent and guilty”
Today, Fr Browne looks back at his extraordinary meeting with Mr Pederick and considers that the one-time Ananda Marga devotee, an impressionable 22-year-old searching for spiritual direction, had probably been brainwashed into carrying out the crime.
He maintains that Mr Pederick was “both innocent and guilty” – operating under “a false consciousness” at that time.
The 1970s saw plenty of religious cults rise and cause great harm – from the Krishnas and the Moonies to Jim Jones’ People’s Temple and the Branch Davidians.
“I think that Evan (Pederick), as a member of the Ananda Marga thought he was doing the will of Baba, their leader, in trying to plant the bomb there,” Fr Browne said.
“Now, when he tried to detonate it didn’t operate, so he ran and thought Baba had saved the day – it’s not going to go off.
“And of course it did go off.
“So he (Evan Pederick) was subjectively innocent, but objectively guilty.
“I think some of them (police detectives) realised he was just a tool of Anderson, but they could never pin it all on Anderson.
“Certainly he (Pederick) was not the brains of the outfit – very impressionable – someone looking for the meaning of life.
“He thought he had found it in Ananda Marga.
“And of course he did something (terrible).”
Two days later, after police charged Mr Pederick with triple murder, Fr Browne visited his cell, asking if he wanted to make a sacramental confession.
Mr Pederick spoke again about what he had done, the terrible cost of it all, and asked for forgiveness.
Then Fr Browne bowed his head and gave the rite of absolution.
Months later, Fr Browne was called as a witness at the trials of both Mr Pederick (pictured below) and Mr Anderson.
“I spent two holidays in the criminal court in Sydney as a result of it,” he said.
By that time Fr Browne had read widely about the Ananda Marga, trying to understand its influence, and how it had captured the minds of many young adherents.
“What I was worried about was his (Evan Pederick’s) subjective guilt,” Fr Browne said.
“I think people are trying to get some kind of truth that is so solid that they are not going to deviate from it when they get it.
“We see that now in the divided state of America.
“The polarisation that we see at the moment is splitting not just the United States of America, but so many people.”
Fr Browne finds the same polarisation highlighted in Luke 12:53: “They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
In September 1989, Mr Pederick pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years’ jail on three counts of murder and one of conspiracy.
A month later, after a lengthy trial, Mr Anderson was convicted of three counts of murder and later sentenced to 14 years.
Then in June, 1991, the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal threw doubt on Mr Pederick’s evidence and quashed Mr Anderson’s conviction.
Mr Anderson went on to become a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, and an author of several books.
In November 1997, Mr Pederick was released from jail after serving eight years of his sentence.
Today he is an Anglican priest, living in Western Australia. He stands by his confession.
Fr Browne lives on Macleay Island.
Even as a retired priest he still celebrates Mass and serves the people of Macleay and the Bay Islands.
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