Melbourne Catholic archdiocese's inaction had 'catastrophic' consequences
By Melissa Davey
December 5, 2017
|The royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse says there was a ‘culture of secrecy’ within the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese. |
Photo by Tracey Nearmy
Royal commission finds former archbishop Thomas Francis Little ‘dismissed or ignored’ allegations of child sexual abuse
The failure of senior figures within the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne, including the former archbishop Thomas Francis Little, to deal with serious allegations of child sexual abuse “demonstrates the catastrophic human consequences of inaction”, a report from the child sex abuse royal commission has found.
On Tuesday the commission released its findings from hearings held in Melbourne in 2015 and in Sydney last year about the response of Melbourne Catholic church authorities to allegations and complaints of child sexual abuse made against seven priests, and especially the abuse by Father Peter Searson.
Those hearings culminated in evidence from Cardinal George Pell, who gave evidence via video-link from the Vatican after his doctor declared him too unwell to fly to Australia to appear in person.
The commission’s report found that Little, who headed the archdiocese of Melbourne from 1974 to 1996, “dismissed or ignored serious allegations of child sexual abuse against a number of priests” and did not investigate or report them to police. The commission also found Little moved offending priests to other parishes where they continued to offend. Little 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, in relation to complaints,” the report 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.”
Searson’s abuse was particularly pervasive and included the rape of multiple children. In 1982 he brought a handgun to Our Lady of Carmel parish school in Sunbury, Victoria, and threatened children with it. He also tortured animals in front of children, the commission heard.
“The case of Father Searson is remarkable in terms of the volume of complaints against him and the number of church personnel to whom they were made,” the report found. “This was not a story of serious but isolated allegations being reported only to the archbishop or vicar general. Rather, Father Searson enjoyed a level of infamy within the parish and ... within other parts of the archdiocese.”
Searson died in 2009, without facing any charges.
The report found that a former principal at the Doveton parish where Searson also worked, Graeme Sleeman, resigned in frustration because of the archdiocese’s inaction in relation to Searson. During public hearings, Sleeman told the commission he had referred hundreds of complaints about Searson to senior Catholic Education Office staff and religious figures but that no action was taken.
Sleeman told the commission during evidence in November 2015 that when he asked Pell for support in addressing the problem of Searson during a telephone call, Pell hung up on him.
Former archdiocese staff told the commission during evidence that a reason no action was taken was because the complaints against Searson and other priests were not proved or were unsubstantiated.
“We are satisfied that there was no rational basis for the relevant church personnel to take that approach,” the report found. “By doing so, they were able to justify their inaction. We consider it extraordinary that the view that the complaints were not proven or unsubstantiated prevailed in light of the evidence that persons within the Catholic Education Office believed the complaints were credible and held significant concerns in relation to Father Searson’s character and conduct.”
In 1984 Little appointed Searson parish priest at Doveton. Holy Family School was attached to the parish and Searson became an employer of school staff.
The commissioners were satisfied that by the end of 1986 Little knew of Searson’s abusing and that he posed a grave risk to the safety of children. Their report concluded that Little “abjectly failed to protect the safety and wellbeing of the children within the parish”.
Searson remained the parish priest at Doveton until March 1997 when he was placed on administrative leave by Pell, who had by then replaced Little as archbishop.