'A crime scene': Doveton priest haunted by parish's dark history

By Carolyn Webb
March 6, 2016

Parish priest Father Michael Shadbolt delivers a sermon at the Holy Family church in Doveton on Sunday.
Photo by Darrian Traynor

Father Michael Shadbolt says the church's detractors were using the paedophile scandal to destroy the church.
Photo by Darrian Traynor

Father Michael Shadbolt gives the sermon at 9.30am mass at the Holy Family church in Doveton on Sunday.
Photo by Darrian Traynor

Parishioner Lindsay Sant, who was an altar boy in the early 1990s under suspected paedophile priest Peter Searson, outside Holy Family Church in Doveton on Sunday.
Photo by Darrian Traynor

A Catholic priest whose parish is at the centre of historical sexual abuse allegations has spoken of the burden of living in a possible "crime scene".

Father Michael Shadbolt, parish priest of Holy Family church in Doveton for 17 years, said he was horrified by allegations that some of his predecessor priests had committed sexual and other assaults on parishioners.

He said he knew Peter Searson in 1996 when both were priests in the area, but he had not known he was a paedophile. "In a way I'm horrified," Father Shadbolt said. "But I guess also in a sense I'm not surprised because he did seem a very strange personality."

"I'm possibly living in a crime scene," he told Fairfax Media before 9.30 Mass on Sunday. "It's quite sad. Perhaps the presbytery is where some of the crimes were done, I don't know for sure.""I like the house, but since this stuff has come up in the last couple of years, you can't help have some feelings, that it's my home but it also has a dark history."Searson, a priest at Doveton for 13 years, was stood down in 1997, after being charged with physical assault of two altar boys. He died in 2009.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse last week heard that six sexual abusers, including four previous parish priests, were linked to Holy Family parish.

It heard that Searson‚Äč had carried a revolver, repeatedly raped an altar boy, held a knife to a child, stabbed a bird with a screwdriver in front of children, and tortured a cat.

Father Shadbolt says Doveton is viewed as "a hotbed of clerical depravity". 

"We've been fearing we'd be attacked. Bricks through the window and who knows what else." 

In his sermon at Mass, Father Shadbolt said the abuse of young people by Catholic clergy, peaking in the 1970s, was a "terrible thing" and the church deserved the "blowtorch treatment" from media and "everybody else".

But most of the sermon attacked the "extraordinary hostility" Cardinal George Pell faced at the commission. 

He said if Cardinal Pell were found "guilty of anything he should be sacked".

"If he's guilty of any cover-up, he should be told to stand down. But I think there should be solid evidence of that. 

"It seems to me there was a determination to 'get him' and to find him guilty of something heinous no matter what," Father Shadbolt said.

He said the church's detractors were using the paedophile scandal to destroy the church.

In his view, Cardinal Pell was "a hero" because he removed Searson from the parish. 

After Mass, long-time parishioners who knew Searson as a priest said they had no suspicion of him. 

Gerald D'Cruz, 67, of Hallam, said his two girls were 7 and 5 when his family came to the parish after migrating from India 22 years ago. Mr D'Cruz was unemployed and said Searson was kind to the family, giving  them a unit to live in next to the church. Mr D'Cruz said Searson often helped migrants find jobs and gave them food packages.

Lindsay Sant, 34, of Narre Warren, an altar boy from age 10 for Searson in the early 1990s, said he had been "devastated" by news of Searson's transgressions. 

"It did affect us greatly," he said. "We were sad to hear that that person we grew up with was hiding this evil side of himself."

Mr Sant, now a Catholic secondary school teacher, is helping rebuild the Holy Family community beyond its "dark past".

"There are a lot of us who are trying to be the new generation who represent the healing of this particular place," he said. 


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