Child Sex Abuse Royal Commission: Sins of the Fathers to Be Laid Bare
By John Ferguson
December 11, 2017
When the late Frank Little retired two decades ago, he recounted with humility and understated humour the highlight of his 22-year calling as Archbishop of Melbourne.
Little was preparing to pass the keys to St Patrick’s Cathedral to George Pell when he recounted a trip around Flemington Racecourse with Pope John Paul II in 1986.
“I was in the Popemobile with the Holy Father and we were going down the straight, away from people, and then there was a lady who was separated from everyone else and she saw her opportunity and ran over to the fence,” Little recalled.
“The Holy Father was getting ready to wave to her, then she waved like mad and yelled out, ‘Hello, Archbishop Little.’ He was marvellous, he was sort of taken aback for a moment, and then he turned around and sort of smiled saying, ‘Win some, lose some.’ ”
In the nearly 10 years since Little died aged 83 in 2008, many have forgotten the broad sense of warmth and appeal that marked the late archbishop’s decades in charge of the heartland of Victorian Catholicism.
Fast-forward a decade and few could have predicted that Little’s reputational win-loss ratio had peaked, that his fall from grace would be so catastrophically complete and his history so comprehensively rewritten.
As the child sex abuse royal commission prepares to release its final report this week, two of its last three case studies focused on dioceses in Melbourne and Ballarat and the third on the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle.
The two faiths dominated complaints cited at the inquiry; 4756 Catholic abuse complaints, mostly between 1950 and 1989, and 1119 reported Anglican complaints, between 1980 and 2015.
In the Victorian reports, the commission found that the once admired Little had led a coterie of senior Catholics in Melbourne between 1974 and 1996 who were responsible for a run of cover-ups of sex offending by clergy and a long-term pattern of failing to protect children.
The evidence is appalling, including cases where obfuscation or inaction guaranteed further offending; where seven of the priests mentioned by the commission committed possibly hundreds of offences aided and abetted by a system of Machiavellian indifference to the suffering of the children.
Little’s complicity was only exceeded by the relentless number of crimes committed in a neighbouring diocese, with the effective green light of the Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, a man unmatched in his capacity to shop abusers around western Victoria to continue their offending.
There were probably thousands of offences committed under Mulkearns’s reign, although the final number will never be known, with apparently fewer than 10 core offenders, some of whom — like their bishop — never facing proper justice.
Combined, the two Victorian case studies provided 825 pages of evidence and commentary on some of the worst institution-sanctioned sex crimes committed in church history.
The Melbourne case study outlined in stunning detail the extent to which Little failed to act to protect the children of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, how police and prosecutors dropped the ball in the handling of investigations into the disgraced priest Father Nazareno Fasciale.
But also the extent to which no fewer than four high-ranking church men and some Catholic educators failed to head off offenders like the insane Father Peter Searson, who terrorised parish children in the full knowledge of Little’s church.
Worse, Little conspired to conceal the truth of offending across the diocese, destroyed documents and worked assiduously with others to send offenders to other postings where they would go on offending.
Like Ballarat, the numbers of offending clergy weren’t radically high; fewer than 10 offending men of the cloth in the archdiocese examined by the commission were left to operate unchallenged.
This was enough, though, to cause decades of turmoil that is still being unpicked by church authorities.
History shows that it wasn’t until George Pell took over as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and the Melbourne Response that the archdiocese started transforming its systems and compensating victims for their trials. Little, like Mulkearns, was the roadblock with key underlings adding obstacles to the passage of justice.
“Archbishop Little abjectly failed to exercise proper care for the children within the archdiocese’s parishes and schools,’’ the commission found.
The commission painted a picture, not so much of a friendly bloke next door as archbishop (he was “Uncle Frank’’ to his family) but a calculating exploiter of his position.
Little, it might have found, had behaved like a profit-driven company man rather than a man of the cloth. The same could be said of Ballarat’s Ronald Mulkearns. They were two men dressed as bishops who could easily have been Collins Street businessmen covering up wrongdoing to protect the share price.
Little and Mulkearns did to the church what business did for asbestos.
Of Little, the commission said: “During the tenure of Archbishop Little, decision-making within the archdiocese in response to complaints of child sexual abuse against priests was highly centralised.
“There were no effective checks and balances on the archbishop’s exercise of his powers in relation to priests the subject of complaints.
“As the evidence in the case study makes plain, a system for responding to complaints of child sexual abuse in which the exclusive authority for making decisions was vested in one person is deeply flawed.’’
For the Catholic Church, criticism of its power structures has been running for hundreds of years. It seems likely that when the commission hands down its final report this week that it will back an overhaul of reporting sex offences within the churches, perhaps even tougher penalties for failing to report crimes.
Francis Sullivan, the chief executive of the church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, says that while Little and Mulkearns were at the head of the rotten fish, there were plenty of others beneath them who had failed to do enough to stop the crimes and subsequent suffering.
On the question of the church’s structures, he says: “The Catholic Church still has plenty of residue of the medieval times.
“The handling of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church is all about the misuse of power, privilege and those who participated in the positions of responsibility. The leadership and those in positions of responsibility instructively protected the institution before the welfare of the children. It’s writ large in every page (of the commission’s case studies).
“You’ve got to be angry because nothing else will change the system.’’
Where it’s hard to get a full picture of where the commission is heading is the significant number of pages that are heavily redacted because of looming court cases affecting both Melbourne and Ballarat.
To that end, it is not legally or practically possible to analyse the role of now Cardinal George Pell, who was for years a prominent figure in Ballarat and Melbourne. It’s fair to say, though, that after Pell took charge of Melbourne there were significant attempts to deal with the sex abuse scandal, chiefly the Melbourne Response compensation scheme, and the veil lifted on offending under Little.
This veil was removed in the Victorian parliamentary inquiry several years ago — the effective precursor to the royal commission — when both Little and Mulkearns were excoriated for operating against the church victims’ interests.
The church is in an invidious position and is undeniably the focus of a feeding frenzy, where unfiltered or even cross-checked information is rarely sought. Where the worst possible assumptions are made and then treated as fact.
Few, for example, have bothered to even consider the similarities between the commonwealth’s new sex abuse redress scheme and the original Melbourne Response set up under Pell, largely because it doesn’t fit the convenient narrative.
Of the 19 victims referred to by pseudonyms in the Melbourne case study last week, 16 were the subject of compensation and psychological care.
It’s not fashionable to give the church any credit for the attempts to deal with the wrongs committed in the past and in a purely emotional sense this is understandable, but not necessarily adding to the full factual picture.
Post-Little, the independent commissioner Peter O’Callaghan QC, for example, did encourage victims to report the crimes to police and of the 145 complaints to the independent commissioners relating to the offenders Kevin O’Donnell, Nazareno Fasciale, Ronald Pickering, Desmond Gannon, David Daniel, Peter Searson and Wilfred Baker, more than a third were reported to police.
This was either before the complainants spoke to the church or after speaking to the independent commissioners. It is wrong to say that the church in Melbourne — after Little — didn’t encourage police investigation of the crimes given that every victim who engages the response is encouraged to report the offending.
But at the same time it’s absolutely right to say that Little and Mulkearns oversaw operations that relentlessly failed to bring in the police and in well-documented cases the police were generally hopeless.
It’s also entirely legitimate for the church’s critics to be as vocal and critical of its failures as they want to be; reading the two Victorian case studies is an exercise in melancholy and outrage-inducing bewilderment.
Lawyer Vivian Waller is a veteran advocate for victims who warns there has been, and continues to be, a dark streak of arrogance where the church sees itself as being above the law.
“What Australian company or tertiary organisation wouldn’t involve the police?’’ she asks.
“Especially if it’s such a widespread thing. And I think part of the problem also from the cultural point of view is that the Catholic Church seemed to regard sexual offending against children as a moral failing which would be forgiven at confession and the perpetrator sent out again.
“As opposed to thinking of it as criminal failure.’’
For sheer weight of offending, it’s hard to go past the corruption that Mulkearns oversaw in the diocese of Ballarat, which spreads across Victoria’s west.
It seems that when Mulkearns couldn’t cover it up, the Christian Brothers finished the job.
With the aid of a pathetic police force in past decades, few can match the excesses of Mulkearns, who covered up offending and shifted wickedly prolific priests such as Gerald Ridsdale from parish to parish.
Ridsdale probably offended against hundreds of children although there have been 78 formal claims. The number of convictions against him masks the reality that most child sex offending goes unpunished.
Mulkearns and many others were given relentless warnings that Ridsdale was offending, yet did little except shift him; Mulkearns’s defenders point to a different era, a lack of understanding of pedophilia and the misguided cultural demand that the church’s reputation be protected at every turn.
“On no occasion during the public hearing did commissioners hear evidence that Bishop Mulkearns or any other member of the clergy reported allegations or complaints of child sexual abuse to the police or another authority,’’ the Ballarat commission case study reported.
The commission also has remarked on the role of the bishop and the power and authority that went with the position in terms of reporting to police, adding: “There was evidence that some records relating to allegations of child sexual abuse were destroyed.’’
However, the commission found that Mulkearns did not keep his conniving to himself, suggesting that Mulkearns had discussed allegations about offending clergy with others.
Like Melbourne, there were several senior diocese officials made relentlessly aware of offending.
In brutally simple language, Mulkearns was a liar and a destroyer of documents.
“Of the many reports to the diocese which we found were made by victims, their families and others in the community, very few were recorded in contemporaneous notes or documents.’’
Books have been written on any number of child sex offenders, including Monsignor John Day, who benefited from police corruption that helped cover up his offending in Victoria’s far northwest, with one brave policeman, Denis Ryan, the exception to the rule.
There is a book in Ridsdale for anyone who wants to drown in the sorrow of Catholic wrongdoing. The commission data states that 140 people made a claim of sexual abuse against police and religious figures operating in the Ballarat Diocese between January 1980 and early 2015, but this excludes Christian Brothers offending, which was profound. Given that Ridsdale’s family and victims feared he offended against up to 500 children, this number seems quite conservative.
Ninety per cent of all claims in Ballarat were made against seven priests, who were each subject to three or more claims of child sexual abuse and 95 per cent of claims relating to between 1950 and 1989.
There is a lag between when offending occurs and when victims feel empowered enough to report, which means more cases are inevitable but hopefully not at the same rate as the past.
One significant factor will be the determination of the church and schools to ensure the past is not repeated.
To that end, on the day that the commission tore apart Little’s already battered reputation, Little’s alma mater — St Patrick’s College in Ballarat — drove a bulldozer into his grave.
The school that gave the church Little and Cardinal Pell and 111 AFL-VFL footballers, will strike Little’s name from a campus building and pen a line through his legacy on the school honour board.
Citing the withering findings of the commission’s Melbourne case study, the school’s headmaster, John Crowley, said today’s college demanded the highest possible standards of behaviour to students in its care. Little, he argued, failed those standards.
“The findings demonstrate that Archbishop Little’s behaviours do not meet these expectations,” Crowley said.
For many in the scarred regional city of Ballarat it was a welcome act of contrition.
For others, it will be too Little, too late.