Whistleblower Principal Graeme Sleeman "Vindicated" after Pell Testimony
By Konrad Marshall
March 3, 2016
|Graeme Sleeman (pictured) resigned as principal of Holy Family school in Doveton after spending years trying to get the church to act against Father Peter Searson. Photo: Penny Stephens|
A school principal who blew the whistle on abusive priest Peter Searson – and was then exiled from the Catholic education system – says he feels "vindicated" by the testimony of Cardinal George Pell this week.
Graeme Sleeman was principal at the Doveton Holy Family school when the notorious Searson arrived in 1984 and began abusing children. It was a school where children lived in fear of the unhinged priest: altar boys did not want to serve, and everyone feared the confessional, where Searson spent far too much time (and he liked children to kneel between his legs), Mr Sleeman resigned in 1986.
He had hoped to force the hand of the church and the Catholic Education Office to remove the paedophile priest. Instead Mr Sleeman lost his career, health and financial security, as the church preferred to keep the now disgraced Searson in Doveton, at one of the most disadvantaged parishes in Melbourne. Mr Sleeman never fully regained his career trajectory.
"I was more than shocked – I was totally disillusioned," Sleeman said of the episode. "In many ways I had a naivety about the church. But boy oh boy, was my faith tested beyond belief."
On Thursday, though, Mr Sleeman said he was pleased that his own role in trying to stop Searson was noted.
"I feel more than vindicated," Sleeman said. "On Wednesday, George said I was difficult man, and five minutes later he said I was the one who should have been taken notice of and should have been believed. That's very unusual for George – to apologise or even give someone some credit."
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse heard this week that Searson, who often wore military fatigues and carried a revolver, repeatedly raped an altar boy, held a knife to the breast of a child, stabbed a bird with a screwdriver in front of children, and tortured a cat.
Mr Sleeman is still upset that Cardinal Pell has not admitted to knowing more.
"He never really answered the questions. I don't believe that he was really open and honest with the commission or the people who were there. My belief is that George Pell is all about his own image."
Searson, meanwhile, remained at Holy Family until 1997. Tellingly, he was removed when charged with physical (not sexual) assault.
For his part, Mr Sleeman eventually suffered a breakdown after his career collapsed.
"In no way am I letting George Pell off the hook for what he's overseen, but George Pell has actually given me what he should have given 20 years ago, when he should have exonerated me and told me that the stance I took in Doveton was the moral one and the right one. The hearings have upheld my integrity. I never thought it would happen."
He also predicted that in 12 months time, Cardinal Pell would be a "nobody" within the church. "If the pope is fair dinkum, he might not demote or him or retire him, but Pell's influence with be radically reduced. How else can they move forward?"