Church Spends More to Restore Church Than Compensate Victims of Paedophile Priests
By Cameron Houston and Chris Vedelago
March 24, 2016
A Bayside church linked to historical clerical abuse and destroyed by an arsonist last year will be rebuilt at an estimated cost of $20 million – almost double the total compensation paid by the Archdiocese of Melbourne to 326 victims of paedophile priests.
The decision to restore St James Church in Gardenvale to its former glory has incensed victims of Father Ronald Pickering, who preyed on more than a dozen boys while he served at the church from 1978 to 1993 before fleeing to Britain.
|St James Church is being rebuilt at a cost of $20 million. Photo: Simon Schluter|
A property claims manager at Catholic Church Insurance, Effie Valavanis confirmed the restoration of the 123-year-old church was the "largest single property claim in CCI history".
The project to rebuild the heritage-listed church will include the replacement of the choir loft, organ, stained glass windows and mosaics all destroyed by the deliberately lit fire days before Easter last year.
"It's disgusting they want to rebuild this place after what happened," said one of Pickering's victims, who received an ex gratia payment $50,000 from the Melbourne archdiocese.
"This place represents so much suffering and pain. I just don't understand why they would want to spend a cent on it," the former altar boy said.
Under the Melbourne Response introduced by former Melbourne archbishop George Pell, the church paid $14.1 million in ex gratia payments for child sexual abuse claims between 1996 and 2014, which included medical and counselling expenses.
Victims have received an average payout of $36,100.
But the cost of administering the controversial compensation scheme was more than $20 million, including $13.2 million on legal expenses.
Former cleric Michael Parer was ordained at St James Church and grew up in Gardenvale. He says part of the massive insurance pay-out should have been spent on a "garden of healing" for victims and their families.
"Where are the Catholic Church's values? How can they build a new church, when they have been so tight-fisted with compensation to victims?
"Here is an opportunity to make a symbolic statement to all the victims of clerical abuse," he said.
Mr Parer also criticised the scale of the restoration project when the church had attracted only modest congregations in recent years.
Church records from 2011 reveal St James' three weekend Masses were attended by a total of 342 parishioners on average.
Since the blaze in March last year, Mass has been held at the chapel of Star of the Sea College, which is next door to St James.
Shane Healy, the director of media and communications for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, said there was no final cost estimate for the project, but insisted it would be "significantly lower" than $20 million.
"To rebuild and completely restore the church to its former glory including windows and mosaics is the aim of the project, which is fully insured so there will be no draw on separate funds," Mr Healy said.
He said that a decision had not been made on whether the reconstruction would include an acknowledgement to Pickering's victims.
Earlier this year, Fairfax Media revealed that former Melbourne archbishop Frank Little ordered for Pickering's retirement entitlements be increased despite his departure to England and complaints dating back to 1986 about his predatory behaviour.
The payments to Pickering, which were delivered via two intermediaries in Melbourne and England, continued even as the Archdiocese of Melbourne began compensating his victims through the Melbourne Response program.
A series of criminal complaints about abuse were also filed with Victoria Police in 1995, 1996 and 1998 but Pickering was never brought to trial before his death in 2009.