New sexual abuse allegations resurface old pain for victims of fundamentalist church priest

Stuff [Wellington, New Zealand]

January 7, 2024

By Federico Magrin

Father Damian Carlile was sent to Aotearoa after he was accused of sexual abuse in Gabon, Africa. But then allegations about altar boys in Whanganui arose in the early 2000s. Federico Magrin investigates.

A tepid sun shines on the northern bank of the Whanganui River. Inside St Anthony’s Church, two replicas of the holy shroud adorn the inside of a traditionalist church in Gonville, a southeastern suburb of the river town. A priest whispers a mass in Latin.

The Christian church is one of six chapels around Aotearoa that belongs to the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), a conservative and break-away Catholic sect, the existence of which would be unknown to most due to its sectarian approach. SSPX is a global organisation with about 600,000 followers across 72 countries.

In Gonville, not much has changed at the SSPX church since the early 2000s, when Australian priest Father Damian Carlile was accused of sexually abusing altar boys.

Former members of the parish say SSPX is a cult, and that it hid and covered up sexual abuse allegations.

Now two decades on, new allegations about another member of the church have surfaced. According to 2023 court documents, a man, who has interim name suppression, has been charged by police with indecency involving a young boy.

A 37-year-old appeared in the Whanganui District Court in October charged with committing an indecent act on a person under 16 in 2019. His home address on court documents was linked to SSPX.

In a letter to parents Father Pierre-Yves Chrissement, invited parents who had concerns about any inappropriate behaviour to come to him. There is no invitation to report accusations to the authorities.

(Not) an ordinary priest

Former altar boy Bo Tamati recalls the sacristy vividly. A small room on the left-hand side of the church; the cupboard with sliding doors where the cassocks and oversized brass bells were stored; the bench and the sink. He remembers the torches, the crosses and the medals hanging.There was the vestibule where the priests would put their clerical robes on, with a burner to heat the charcoal for burning incense.

It was here that Tamati says he was abused by Father Damian Carlile in the early 2000s.

“I know I spent a lot of time in there, not just setting up for mass, but the sacristy was my responsibility,” he says.

After moving with his family from Waikato to Whanganui and struggling to adjust to his new school Tamati became an altar boy aged eight.

Around that time Carlile arrived in Whanganui as the head of the altar boys, serving under the St Stephen’s Guild. Carlile was one of the founders of the SSPX “servers’ guild” earlier in Sydney: a group of men and altar boys who would help and assist the priests with mass.

Ordained in the early 90s in Écône, Switzerland, Carlile was posted to the SSPX Libreville evangelical mission in Gabon, schooling children and introducing them to religious beliefs. However, members of the Libreville parish accused him of sexual abuse, according to an investigation published overseas, and in 2000 the Australian priest left for a brief stint in France for penance – and then New Zealand.

In what is called “geographic cure” or the “shuffle”, a term coined by abuse experts and advocates, problematic priests are moved around the globe, in the hope they will stop abusing children.

However, soon after arriving in Whanganui, Carlile was again put in charge of young children and altar boys. That’s when he met Tamati and the alleged abuse started. Tamati has now, through his lawyer, approached the SSPX for compensation.

Though the church acknowledged the alleged abuse when Tamati’s family complained and told them that Carlile would be sent away, they felt their complaint was not treated appropriately.

The family has a 2017 letter, which Stuff has viewed, from the former SSPX superior general Bernard Fellay. In it, he says an internal investigation into the “wrongdoings” of Carlile was not yet concluded. “In the meantime, Fr. Carlile is kept out of harm’s way, in a preventive manner,” he says.

Says Tamati, “People like Carlile, they are predators, in the truest sense of the word. They stalk their prey, they stalk it, stalk it, stalk it, and they camouflage themselves just the same as a predator does. And they are exceptionally good at it.

“It’s as necessary to them as eating, one way or another they are going to find a way to do it and they won’t stop until they are [done].”

The years during which Tamati was allegedly sexually abused by Carlile had blended together, he says. “There were no defining birthdays, there was no defining Christmas.”

While other kids were enjoying life Tamati says he had to come to terms with some of the worst aspects of it.

A burning, all-consuming hate turned him into a terrible person, he says.

“As a result, I destroyed a lot of people’s lives, I hurt a lot of people physically, emotionally, psychologically.”

Priests and predators who are only given warnings just get better at hiding, he says. To attempt to rehabilitate an abusive priest by moving him could never work.

“That is the biggest load of bullshit I have ever heard.”

A tight-lipped, one-sided mentality

Tamati describes SSPX as a community affected by tunnel vision. Parishioners and priests only believe what aligns with their opinions, and avoid information that contrasts with their beliefs. Priests were respected men to look up to, not abusers. Parishioners’ devotion can be witnessed at the altar, . Kneeling on the wooden prie-dieu, they believe their future lies in how strongly they hold onto their rosary beads.

SSPX is one of the traditionalist churches that refuses the direction the Catholic Church took after the Second Vatican Council, held between 1962 and 1965. To modernise the mass, the council had requested parishes around the world use the vernacular during masses, which in New Zealand would be English, but SSPX priests in Whanganui still say masses in Latin today.

The fundamentalist church has six chapels in Aotearoa: Auckland, Hamilton, Napier, Wellington, Whanganui and Whangārei.

In 2011, the Tamati family met with Bishop Bernard Fellay, the SSPX superior general at the time, to complain about Carlile.

Fellay and another priest, Father Michael Fortin, met with former and current members of the SSPX to investigate Carlile.

Fellay told the Tamati family that he believed Bo, and that the SSPX had started an inquiry into Carlile. Then, allegations that he could have done the same to children in Roodepoort, South Africa, arose.

Carlile, secretary of the South African district at the time, had allegedly asked a boy from the local parish to send him pictures of him naked. The case was raised with the SSPX then-superior of the district of Africa, Loïc Duverger, assistant to the District Anthony Esposito, and several fathers.

The victim’s father was told to “please, be very quiet” about what Carlile did, “to avoid a crisis in the parish that would affect the work of God”, a letter from a former SSPX priest leaked to Stuff shows.

Victims of abuse around the world have started groups and networks to help fellow survivors. A survivor of SSPX priest Patrick Groche in Gabon founded the Collective of SSPX Victims (Collectif des Victimes de la FSSPX), a worldwide support group for victims.

Despite repeated attempts to talk to SSPX about the allegations, it has refused to cooperate. Barbara Carr, a former teacher of Latin at St Joseph’s Primary School, one of the SSPX’s Whanganui schools, who became aware of the abuse allegations, claims she was denounced from the pulpit after writing a letter to Father Michael Delsorte, who was the head of the religious community at the time at the SSPX priory, denouncing the abuse.

“Retribution was swift. I was denounced from the pulpit. My family was ostracised,” she told Stuff.

Shortly after, she moved back to Australia.

An unusual school

Julian* remembers Carlile clearly from his days at St Anthony’s School. One day after church, the priest pulled him aside and asked whether he was upset. “He told me that if ever I was upset, I could come to him and talk to him about it. That’s my first memory of him. Nobody had ever asked whether I was OK, and at first, it felt like somebody cared about me,” he says.

Julian was an altar boy at SSPX Whanganui in the early 2000s. However, the priest who promised to be supportive soon became touchy-feely. “After I had served mass one time, I went into the sacristy of the church,” he says.

“He grabbed me from behind and put his hand down my pants…

“I was in shock, frozen. I didn’t do anything because I didn’t know what to do.”

Julian says he was sexually assaulted on various occasions.

“Sometimes it was… as we were leaving the sacristy to go to mass, he would put his hand down my pants and touch me.”

He says the school failed to protect him. “A lot of it happened when I was supposed to be at school, when I was supposed to be in the care of my teachers.

“When a parent sends a child to school, they trust the school is going to take care of that child. To allow this to happen to a child while in the care of the school … the school allowed this to happen.”

Julian says SSPX suppressed the abuse, and his parents were not supportive.

“They didn’t act like a normal parent would when their child has been abused. They politely set up a meeting with the priests,” he says.

A clerical black hole

After Julian’s parents met with the church and the SSPX, Fortin gave him a letter, acknowledging what happened and saying such a thing should never happen to a child. Julian says the letter was an apology from the church, but that was not enough.

Julian was also told the church would investigate Carlile.

Families who accused Carlile of abuse were told documents recording the investigation would be sent to a Vatican dicastery in Rome.

In 2022, Pope Francis renamed the centuries-old Congregation for Universal Inquisition the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The office that was responsible for ordering executions of dissidents and the persecution of heretics was now to deal with priests accused of sexually abusing children.

Italian journalist Ludovica Eugenio describes the dicastery as a black hole for clerical investigations. Documents disappear into a semi-judicial process and victims are not made aware of the outcome. Everything is carried out in absolute secrecy, she says.

Eugenio is the director of a newspaper that specialises in news related to the Vatican and investigations into the church. She says when a priest is accused of sexual abuse, there is little transparency. Additionally, there is “prescrizione” – a Vatican law that allows accused priests to avoid being prosecuted if 20 or more years have passed since the act they are accused of.

Eugenio says after a priest is accused of sexual abuse, a commission can be created by the dicastery. If the priest is found guilty by the commission, then he can be sanctioned and asked to retire to private life in a monastery, or it could suspend the priest from his religious ministry, meaning he could not celebrate mass or sacraments, or it could defrock him. Hardly ever, Eugenio says, is a priest excommunicated.

A European monastery and a silent walk

In the Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, a “contemplative house” is hidden between the snowy peaks of the Alps. Lush trees and small lakes adorn the background of an off-the-beaten-track group of buildings in the south of France: a monastery where priests of the conservative SSPX find themselves spending years of penance in an idyllic and reclusive community. It has been called a golden cage.

SSPX became infamous in 2009 when Bishop Richard Williamson denied the Holocaust during an interview with Swedish journalist Ali Fegan.

Fegan had unveiled what he called a “golden cage” or “gilded prison”: Notre Dame de Montgardin, a secluded monastery in the Western Alps. “This is the place where they hide priests who had been molesting children,” Fegan tells Stuff.

Former members of the parish told Stuff father Damien Carlile is in the golden cage.

Jake* says the clergy’s handling of the Carlile case will reflect badly on the SSPX leadership. Sending Carlile to Notre-Dame de Montgardin instead of complaining to police, “that’s just letting him off very easily”.

Jake was an altar boy at St Anthony’s church in Whanganui, and says he grew up in a family with archaic views when it came to religion and society.

He says one evening, while he was alone with Carlile in the sacristy cleaning candles, the priest put a hand under his shirt and touched his waist. “I just felt confused, to be honest. Since it didn’t go any further, he kind of played it off as a joke.”

He says too often in the Catholic Church it’s the victims who are hurt and the perpetrators who are free – even when they are found guilty. “It’s been happening for bloody decades now.”

In 2017, SSPX Bishop Fellay answered an email from Carmel Tamati, the mother of Bo Tamati.

Tamati wrote to Fellay after she learnt that Carlile was allowed to go to Australia. They had previously met in 2011 to discuss Bo’s allegations.

“Please let me repeat that I have compassion on all the innocent victims of the wrongdoings of this priest,” Fellay wrote to her.

“Since we started to handle his case, this priest does not exercise any apostolate and he is not in a position to harm anyone any more.” The email also said if “the civil authorities” had investigated and if Carlile had been condemned “he would have had to stay a few years in jail, and afterwards he would have been released,” while the ecclesiastical measures would last forever.

Stuff has made repeated attempts to discuss these issues with St Anthony’s Church, St Anthony’s Primary School, St Augustine College in Whanganui, as well as the headquarters of SSPX for Australia and New Zealand in Sydney, district superior father Daniel Themann, Carlile himself, Father Pierre-Yves Chrissement, Father Michael Delsorte, and Notre Dame de Montgardin.

The SSPX was contacted by emails, phone calls and WhatsApp calls, and questions were asked in person at the church and schools in Whanganui. No answers were provided.

In October, Stuff approached Father Pierre-Yves Chrissement outside St Anthony’s Church. The priest, who is the head of the religious community in Whanganui, silently walked to his car, ignoring Stuff’s questions.

The weird grin of a cunning preacher

Tiaki Kemara is concerned about the fresh allegations of sexual abuse against another member of the parish, that are now before the Whanganui District Court. He says he was sexually abused by Carlile 20 years ago, and since then little has changed in the way children and students are protected by SSPX, he says.

All his memories of Carlile involved the priest being present when he changed into his altar boy outfit. Kemara was 11 and the priest seemed happy and cheerful to him, at first.

He describes Carlile as “cunning”.

He says he would approach him in the sacristy of St Anthony’s Church when there were no adults or older boys around. Then, Kemara says, he would touch him. “He did like to have a bit of a grope.” He would do it with a weird grin on his face, the now 33-year-old says.

Kemara says he remembers telling his father, who approached the church in Whanganui and was told by Father Michael Delsorte, who was in charge of the SSPX parish at the time, to let the church handle the accusation.

Within days, Carlile was sent away from New Zealand.

“I thought that was pretty shit, because he has committed a heinous crime, regardless of what he is, whether he is a priest or not. It doesn’t matter, anybody else would be under the limelight.”

Kemara says he has tried to suppress the memories. “To a point where I have just about sort of eradicated it from my brain. But of course that is never ever gonna be fully out of my head,” he says, sipping from an RTD can. Kemara has had trust issues throughout his life, smoked drugs, and “indulged” in alcohol since he was 13.

When he was 21 he was charged with assaulting his partner and Oranga Tamariki took custody of their children.

“I don’t know if my life would have been that way, if none of that had ever happened.”

In emails viewed by Stuff, the first sent in 2012, a former SSPX priest tells his superiors he is concerned that Carlile was allowed to live next to a primary school in South Africa and spend time with the altar boys after he had been accused in other countries of abusing young members of the parish.

In March 2019, he wrote to current SSPX general superior Davide Pagliarani, drawing a comparison between how the church had dealt with Carlile and Father Frédéric Abbet, a Swiss priest accused of abusing children. Four months later, the priest who wrote the letter decided to leave the church, as he did not see any change in how sexual abuse accusations were treated.

Allegiance to a ‘cult’

In October, Father Pierre-Yves Chrissement released a statement to parents of the students at St Augustine College in Whanganui. Stuff has been sent a copy by concerned members of the parish.

“Many of you may already be aware of an alleged incident involving a police charge in relation to an incident involving members of our parish,” he writes.

Chrissement writes that he is “particularly mindful of the virtue of prudence when it comes to the safety of your children’s purity”. In the message, the French priest says SSPX is “fully cooperating with the authorities”.

“The schools and the Society of St Pius X have clear and comprehensive policies in place to help prevent and address any behaviour that is inappropriate or falls below acceptable professional standards for dealing with children, and is constantly improving the implementation of these policies and the understanding of this complex issue,” the statement says.

“If you have any concerns, why go directly to them? It doesn’t make sense,” Tiaki Kemara says. “You would go directly to the appropriate authorities because they [SSPX] are not the authorities, they are just clergymen, aren’t they?”

He fears the church is again trying to hide the alleged sexual abuse. They should instead direct victims or parents to the police or lawyers, he says. “I never did, and left it in the hands of adults until I got older.”

Omertà, the obligation to extreme loyalty, looms over the ultra-conservative community.

Fighting back tears, Kemara says his parents could have done more. He says they were brainwashed by Delsorte and the SSPX clergy into believing the church would handle the case properly. “It proves today they didn’t, they didn’t do anything.

“I don’t trust that place whatsoever … [Carlile] hasn’t been punished for what he has done.”

The church has been sweeping accusations under the carpet, he says. “It stinks of a cult, doesn’t it?

“They want to say nasty things about Gloriavale, but it’s not much better, eh.”

*Names have been changed