Former Catholic Church Worker Says She Was Prevented from Helping Abuse Victims by George Pell

By Steve Cannane
March 17, 2016


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: A former pastoral care co-ordinator with the Catholic Church in Melbourne has called on the royal commission and police to subpoena all of the Church's secret files on sexual abuse by clergy. Helen Last has told Lateline that until all the secret documents known internally as the "red files" are made available, the public's only getting part of the truth about the scope of the crimes committed against children. She also says that former Melbourne Archbishop George Pell preventing her from helping victims of abuse in Doveton, a parish devastated by the notorious paedophile priest Peter Searson. Steve Cannane has our exclusive report.

STEVE CANNANE, REPORTER: Do you still have the support of the Pope, Cardinal?

GEORGE PELL, CARDINAL: Counsel, this was an extraordinary world, a world of crimes and cover-ups.

HELEN LAST, FMR CO-ORDINATOR, PASTORAL RESPONSE OFFICE: It was surprising for me to hear him say that it was a world of crimes and cover-ups, whereas in days before he'd been saying he knew nothing, he saw nothing, he was never told anything, and then he called it a world of crimes and cover-ups.

STEVE CANNANE: In 1997, Helen Last was the co-ordinator of the Pastoral Response Office for the Melbourne Archdiocese. She says then Archbishop Pell personally stopped her from going to Doveton parish to investigate and provide care to the victims of the notorious paedophile priest Father Peter Searson.

HELEN LAST: They did not want our pastoral work on that professional level to start in that area because it was so full of sexual crimes and terrible trauma and terrorisation of altar boys. They did not want us to be working there to be uncovering it and to helping people specifically who had suffered that.

STEVE CANNANE: Father Searson had been accused of pointing a gun at students, holding a knife to a young girl's chest and sexually abusing children. He was the priest who inspired this memorable exchange at the royal commission:

GAIL FURNESS, COUNSEL ASSISTING: There's reference in that paragraph to Father Searson stabbing to death a bird in front of the children?


GAIL FURNESS: Now did that come to your attention?

GEORGE PELL: At some stage, I think. I - I don't know whether the bird was already dead or - but at some stage, I certainly was informed of this bizarre happening.

GAIL FURNESS: Does it matter whether the bird was dead or it was stabbed when it was dead?

GEORGE PELL: Not really, not really.

STEVE CANNANE: In 1997, then Archbishop Pell stood down Father Searson. But Doveton parishioners remained traumatised by his 13-year reign of terror. In that year, Helen Last was running the office that had been set up by Monsignor Gerry Cudmore to help survivors of clergy sexual abuse.

HELEN LAST: I was contacted by the regional pastoral workers and the parish priest of Endeavour Hills, which was right next door to Doveton, and some people from Doveton parish themselves, to come down and sit with them and work with them to help them understand what it had been like for them and for them to be able to name it and talk about it and get some relief, just by speaking the truth.

STEVE CANNANE: And what did George Pell say to you about going to Doveton?

HELEN LAST: He said it was not necessary, and so did the Vicar General, Denis Hart.

STEVE CANNANE: Tonight for the first time, Lateline can reveal copies of the letters that George Pell and Denis Hart sent Helen Last in 1997. The pair made the case that, "... the situation at Doveton was under control, and that there was no need for the Pastoral Response Office to be involved."

Helen Last defied George Pell and Denis Hart and went to Doveton. Soon after, she received this letter, saying her pastoral response program had been placed under review.

HELEN LAST: Then in due course, I was called to the office of the Vicar General and the business manager was there and my contract was terminated.

STEVE CANNANE: And you believe that was related to you going to Doveton?

HELEN LAST: It was absolutely related, yes.

STEVE CANNANE: Archbishop Hart rejects this view. In a statement to Lateline, he said, "With the establishment of the Melbourne Response ... the consultancy services of Ms Last were no longer required".

The office of Cardinal George Pell in Rome also provided a statement to Lateline.

OFFICE OF CARDINAL GEORGE PELL STATEMENT (male voiceover): "Ms Last was reluctant to support the improvements represented by the Melbourne Response and appears to harbour resentment 20 years after she left the Archdiocese of Melbourne. ... Her position, subject to the conflicts of interest inherent in her role through the Vicar General's office, became redundant under the Melbourne Response."

STEVE CANNANE: The late Monsignor Gerry Cudmore had set up the Pastoral Response Office run by Helen Last. She says she resigned as Vicar General because he thought Archbishop Pell's response was too legalistic.

HELEN LAST: Archbishop Pell coming in had asked Monsignor Cudmore would he stay on and be his Vicar General, and Monsignor Cudmore told me that he had refused that invitation because he couldn't work with Archbishop Pell, there would be a lot of conflict. And so he was talking to me about that handover process and he was talking to me directly about his files that contained highly important materials and he pointed to the filing cabinet and said, "That will be marked 'Never to be opened'."

STEVE CANNANE: What did he mean by that?

HELEN LAST: He meant that those files would be put into the archdiocese archives and that they were so serious that they were to be pretty much locked down and not used in any way.

STEVE CANNANE: These files became known as the "red files", secret clergy abuse files kept separate from personnel files. Lateline has been told that police were unaware of the existence of these files until 2013.

A former insider from the Melbourne Archdiocese has told Lateline that under the papacy of Pope Benedict, a directive was sent out requiring that all abuse-related files be sent immediately to the Nuncio, the papal ambassador to Australia.

The Nuncio at the time was Giuseppe Lazzarotto, a man with a history of failing to hand over Church documents.

The Murphy inquiry into clergy abuse in Dublin noted that when Lazzrotto was Buncio in Ireland, he refused to requests for Church documents.

When George Pell gave evidence in Rome, survivors of abuse called on the Vatican to release all documents that relate to abuse in Australia.

STEPHEN WOODS, CLERGY ABUSE SURVIVOR (March 1): We know that files were taken out of Ballarat and taken to the Vatican. We want those files returned.

STEVE CANNANE: So are these files now being concealed in the Vatican?

FRANCIS SULLIVAN, CEO, TRUTH, JUSTICE AND HEALING COUNCIL: I am not aware of any documents that were literally taken out of Australia, put in the Vatican, without copies of them back in Australia.

STEVE CANNANE: But there are other files that originated in the Vatican that have so far been out of reach of the royal commission. In 2013, George Pell said the Vatican would cooperate with any requests.

GEORGE PELL (2013): Some months ago when I was in the Vatican, I said to - I told a senior official about the upcoming royal commission and I said - and he assured me, after my question, that every document the Vatican had will be available to the royal commission.

STEVE CANNANE: But that has not happened. The head of the royal commission, Justice McClellan, has expressed frustration at the Vatican's unwillingness to release certain files. When the royal commission asked the Vatican for documents in 2014, it was stonewalled.

ROYAL COMMISSION SPOKESPERSON (female voiceover): "The Vatican suggested that the Royal Commission obtain documents from Catholic Church authorities within Australia and that it was not appropriate for the Royal Commission to request documents reflecting the internal deliberations of the Vatican."

STEVE CANNANE: It was a kick in the guts for victims.

STEPHEN WOODS: I was disgusted, I was broken-hearted, yet again, that these files weren't sent. It's just terrible to see people who claim to be Christians, people who claim to be moral leaders in society, be so evasive when it comes to crimes.

FRANCIS SULLIVAN: For too long, secrecy at all levels has characterised the Catholic Church's approach to this whole scandal. And it is incumbent on the Vatican, as it is on Church leaders in Australia, to be open and transparent with inquiries like the royal commission.

STEVE CANNANE: The Melbourne Archdiocese insists that it still has the red files and that all files requested by the royal commission and the police have been handed over. But Helen Last wants more. She says Taskforce Sano and the royal commission should subpoena all of the red files held by bishops in Australia and the files that are being specifically held in the office of Peter O'Callaghan QC, the commissioner for the Melbourne Response.

HELEN LAST: They have forensic material in them, they cover criminal activity by clergy, they cover the anguish and information of parents and parishioners speaking to the Vicar General at the time. They are of great importance to the truth of what's happened here and the victims and the public want the truth, but they're only getting part of the truth at the present time.

FRANCIS SULLIVAN: We are giving the royal commission everything it wants at its request. There's no point us turning up and swamping them with documents when they already have so many documents that they're working through in a forensic fashion. If they want more, if they want them in a specific area, if they want them in a gradual serial approach, that's what we do.

STEPHEN WOODS: The victims really want justice and we really want to see all aspects covered. So let's have the files, let's see what they knew, let's see that - let's see more aspects of justice be done.








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