Catholic Church investigating claims children were prostituted to Church officials

Stuff [Wellington, New Zealand]

May 12, 2021

By Sophie Cornish

[VIDEO: The Catholic Church says it’s shamed and saddened by abuse in the church. The church has opened its evidence at the Inquiry into abuse in care on how it’s handled complaints. (Video first published March 2021).]

The Catholic Church has confirmed it is investigating claims children from a Wellington boys’ home were prostituted out to Church officials.

It is also calling on anyone with personal information on the matter to come forward and speak to them.

The allegations were made at a Royal Commission of Inquiry hearing on Tuesday by Keith Wiffin, a former ward of the state who lived at Epuni Boys’ Home in Lower Hutt in the 1970s.

A victim of sexual abuse at the home when he was 11 Wiffin, now 61, said he never personally experienced the practice himself, but had learnt the Church was investigating the claims.

He said he had also been told the information by a former ward of the state who lived at Epuni around the time he lived there, who had experienced the practice.

He alleged boys were taken from the home in a van on several occasions by a housemaster, Alan Moncrief-Wright, to a Church site, where clergymen would walk around the van looking at the boys, selecting the ones they wanted to sexually abuse.

Eleanor Parkes, director of New Zealand’s ECPAT Child Alert organisation, which focuses on addressing the sexual exploitation of children, said the practice, if true, would fit within the United Nations and New Zealand’s definition of child trafficking.

“Trafficking is the reception, recruitment, transport, transfer, concealment, or harbouring of any person for the purposes of exploitation. It does not have to involve crossing international borders at all, and most of the trafficking cases in New Zealand that we know about are domestic,” Parkes said.

On Wednesday, the Church confirmed it was investigating the claims and that it had previously provided information to the Commission relating to the alleged events.

Catherine Fyfe, chairperson of Te Rōpū Tautoko, an agency created to coordinate Catholic engagement with the Royal Commission, said the information formed part of the extensive documentation which the agency provided to the Commission.

“Church authorities are aware of an allegation similar to that raised by Mr Keith Wiffin at the Royal Commission this week.

“Church authorities continue to work with survivors to investigate matters associated with the complaint. The Royal Commission will be aware of this from documents the Church has provided,” Fyfe said.

“The agency, bishops and congregational leaders of the Church are urging anyone who might have personal knowledge of the matters raised by Mr Wiffin to contact the Royal Commission or the Church’s National Office for Professional Standards.

“The Catholic Church in Aotearoa New Zealand asked to be part of the Royal Commission’s inquiry and will continue to strongly support the inquiry and respond there to any issues that are raised, including Mr Wiffin’s evidence,” Fyfe said.

Moncrief-Wright was convicted and jailed on a number of sexual violation charges against boys, including Wiffin, and has since died. Wiffin has previously given evidence to the Commission on two occasions.

At Tuesday’s hearing, he told the Commission of his own experiences going out on excursions in the van, driven by Moncrief-Wright.

The housemaster would take boys to pick up videos and lollies for the Saturday night entertainment and would sometimes take groups of boys to see movies.

He said it wasn’t uncommon for boys to be taken to the homes of staff members and away for weekends.

In March, the Catholic Church formally apologised to survivors of abuse for the first time.

Cardinal John Dew made the apology at a hearing for the Commission, on behalf of the bishops and congregational leaders in New Zealand, stating the church could offer no excuses for the actions of the church that caused harm.

He said the abuse was perpetrated by people, such as priests, brothers and sisters and lay people that victims should have been able to trust and that the systems and culture of the church allowed abuse to occur.

Dew acknowledged the abuse caused pain, hurt and trauma which continued to have an impact on the lives of survivors.

Abuse in faith-based institutions such as churches or religious schools between 1950 and 1999 makes up a large part of the inquiry.