Arson fears prompt Catholic Church security warning ahead of Easter

By Beau Donelly
March 22, 2016

Father Ronald Pickering [L] with choir.

St James Church in Brighton, where paedophile priest Ronald Dennis Pickering worked from 1978-1993, was almost destroyed by fire last year.

Paedophile Terrence Pidoto, a priest at St Bede's in the 1970s, died last year.

Damage from the suspicious fire at St Mary's Catholic Church in Dandenong this morning.

The Catholic Church is bracing for possible arson attacks on Melbourne parishes linked to paedophile priests, 12 months after vandals torched three suburban churches. 

The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne has told its parishes to be vigilant following an attempted arson attack on St Bede's Church in Balwyn North earlier this month. An intruder broke into the church and poured accelerant onto the altar, but is believed to have fled before lighting the fire because an alarm went off. 

In an email to the 214 churches in the Melbourne Archdiocese, vicar-general Monsignor Greg Bennet warned of the risk of arson, saying the Balwyn church's alarm system was all that foiled "what would have been another catastrophic fire". It coincides with the one-year anniversary of three as-yet-unsolved fires at churches where paedophile priests worked.

The internal email said the arson squad was investigating the latest attack and that police had advised all churches be vigilant, "especially those where there has been a history of sexual abuse cases".Notorious paedophile priest Terrence Pidoto served as an assistant priest at the Balwyn parish in the early 1970s. He was jailed in 2007 after being found guilty of eleven child sex abuse charges including rape and indecent assault. 

The Catholic Church's warning to its Melbourne parishes follows a string of suspicious fires in the lead-up to Easter last year. The churches targeted - St James in Brighton, St Mary's in St Kilda East and St Mary's in Dandenong - are linked to paedophile priests who abused children between the 1940s and 1990s.  

Police are yet to solve the three fires, but said investigations were ongoing. "As the matter is an active investigation we are not in a position to provide any further updates at this stage," Victoria Police spokeswoman Amelia Penhall said on Tuesday. Police confirmed the arson and explosives squad was still investigating the Balwyn fire.

The heritage-listed Brighton church was almost destroyed by fire on the same night that St Mary's in St Kilda East was set alight. Ronald Pickering, who has been linked to multiple suicides of child abuse victims, worked at both churches. Pickering abused boys at several parishes before fleeing to his native Britain and died there in 2012, having never been charged.

In the same week, St Mary's in Dandenong was gutted by flames, causing $250,000 worth of damage. Convicted paedophile priest Kevin O'Donnell worked at that church in the 1950s and '60s.   

O'Donnell, who was convicted in 1995 for abusing 10 children, is subject to the largest number of complaints to the church's internal compensation scheme, with about $2.2 million paid out to survivors.

Last year's fires, which also coincided with the child abuse royal commission hearings, forced Easter services to be moved at the last minute and prompted some churches to boost security measures.

Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne spokesman, Shane Healy, said it appeared the fires were related to historical child abuse as the churches.

"There is a history of paedophile priests in each of those parishes, which we certainly accept, and it does seem to be a pretty major coincidence for that not to be the case," he said.

It is believed at least four other churches in Melbourne that are linked to clergy sex abuse have been targeted by arsonists in the past 20 years.



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