Editorial Opinion
Sexual Predator

The Press [Christchurch, New Zealand]
May 19, 2004

Disgraced pedophile priest Alan Woodcock began his betrayals of trust a quarter of a century ago and his abuse of young males continued for at least a decade. It is sadly not surprising that a man like Woodcock sought to indulge his predilection with no regard for the devastating consequences on his victims. What is horrifying is that the Catholic Church knew what manner of man it was harboring but instead of ensuring that students in its care were safe, it placed a sexual predator amongst them. Then, when complaints of abuse did emerge, the church's priority was not the welfare of the student victims, but protecting Woodcock and itself.

Woodcock has pleaded guilty to 21 charges relating to the abuse of 11 boys between 1978 and 1987 and another 13 charges were dropped. Thankfully, the guilty pleas should spare the victims the full horror of having to relive the anguish for which Woodcock is responsible. The church, however, must not be spared full accountability and blame for its trail of evasion.

The church knew that Woodcock, then a chaplain at the University of Canterbury, had received a suspended sentence for sexually assaulting a Rangiora youth in 1979. This should have been a glaring warning about his unfitness to be a teacher or priest, but Woodcock was soon after teaching at St Patrick's College, Silverstream. Complaints of abuse followed and continued even after he was pushed on to other church institutions. At one point Woodcock was advised to get a passport, ostensibly for him to receive treatment from overseas counseling services but no doubt also to get rid of an increasingly embarrassing priest.

Concealing the misconduct of fallen priests, including shifting them from job to job or overseas, was typical of the denial of sex abuse which then prevailed in New Zealand and was also evident in the United States and Australia. Too often the truth emerged only after pressure from victims or the news media. In the Woodcock case even when a victim at St Patrick's did go the media, a former Chief District Court Judge, who was also an old boy, advised on how to keep this out of the public limelight.

Secrecy could not be justified by the need to help the offending clerics, as the best way to do this would be through the legal and health systems. With respect to priests, there should be an added onus to report abusers, as it was the church that placed them in the position of trust which they exploited. Failure to take action can only add to the pain of the victims and expose other new victims to risk. Nor it is credible to argue that too little was known about sexual abuse a generation ago. If enough was known for Woodcock to be convicted in court of sexual assault in 1979, enough was also known for his other abuse to been reported by church authorities.

Clearly, much of this concealment had less to do with defending individual priests than with protecting the reputation of the church itself. At what point, therefore, does an institution that knowingly and repeatedly allows a pedophile to be in a position of power and responsibility over students, itself become an accomplice in his predations'

Eventually, action has been taken in many sexual abuse cases involving priests. Church leaders have made apologies, including to Woodcock's 1979 victim; compensation packages have been negotiated across a range of complaints and the head of Woodcock's order has said that abuse allegations will now be reported to the police. All this is welcome change from the denial that once reigned. But the reluctance with which this has been developed means that words and money alone cannot guarantee that the church's moral authority will be fully restored.


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