Royal Commission delivers withering criticism of Melbourne Archdiocese
By Cameron Houston And Chris Vedelago
December 5, 2017
The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne has been found to have ignored, dismissed or covered up allegations of appalling child abuse by seven of its priests in a bid to protect the church's reputation and avoid scandal.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse delivered a withering assessment of the Archdiocese's handling of clerical abuse, with much of its opprobrium reserved for former Archbishop Frank Little who died in 2008.
"We are satisfied that the evidence in the case study showed a prevailing culture of secrecy within the Archdiocese, led by Archbishop Little," the royal commission found.
"Complaints were dealt with in a way that sought to protect the Archdiocese from scandal and liability and prioritised the interests of the Church over those of the victims."
The redacted report released on Tuesday made no findings on the conduct of Cardinal George Pell, who succeeded Little as Archbishop of Melbourne, but pointedly mentioned that its terms-of-reference prevented the release of information that could "prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings".
It said an unredacted report would be tabled at a later date.
The Commissioners used the shocking case of Father Peter Searson to underscore the Archdiocese's systemic failure to discipline priests accused of predatory behaviour.
Despite an allegation of rape in 1974, Searson continued to abuse children in parishes in Sunbury and Doveton until 1986.
In 1993, he threatened a girl at the church doors with a knife, but again, no action was taken.
"The matters known to Archbishop Little by the end of 1986 were undoubtedly sufficient to demonstrate that Father Searson ought to be removed. By not removing Father Searson, Archbishop Little abjectly failed to protect the safety and wellbeing of the children within the parish," the Royal Commission report stated.
During his testimony to the commissioners, Cardinal Pell described Archbishop Little's response as "absolutely unsatisfactory".
The commissioners also identified a "practice of using oblique or euphemistic language in correspondence and records concerning complaints of child sexual abuse".
Terms such as "special issues" were used to conceal complaints of child sexual abuse against priests.
The royal commission, which has interviewed hundreds of victims since it was announced in 2012, found that minutes of the meetings of the Curia (a body of senior clergy who advise and assist the Archbishop) were generally "euphemistic, incomplete and inaccurate".
None of the minutes referred directly to child sexual abuse or other similar terms.
The commissioners found that the "purpose of not recording information was to protect the assets of the Archdiocese in the event of a claim being made against it".
Despite being the subject of serious and repeated complaints, Archbishop Little also encouraged several priests, to retire on the grounds of ill health or "stress".
Archbishop Little allowed Father Ronald Pickering, Father David Daniel and Father Desmond Gannon to be treated as though they were eligible for financial support from the Priests' Retirement Foundation.
In the case of Pickering, the Royal Commission accused Archbishop Little of "subterfuge" and attempting to conceal the financial support of a priest who was found to have abused at least 19 children between 1960 and 1989.
Current Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart said he accepted the Commission's finding that there was a culture of secrecy within the Archdiocese that sought to protect it from scandal and liability and it had prioritised the Church's interests over those of victims.
Archbishop Hart said the mishandling of complaints against priests had led to unnecessary suffering for victims and their families.
"Where this abuse occurred resulting from the passivity or inactivity of predecessors of mine, I sincerely apologise and accept responsibility," Archbishop Hart said.