NZ’s top Catholic fails in bid to block abuse allegations

Stuff [Wellington, New Zealand]

March 6, 2024

By Steve Kilgallon

  • Cardinal John Dew, New Zealand’s top Catholic, has lost a Supreme Court bid to block a Newshub report tying him to sexual abuse allegations.
  • Dew went to the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court to try and halt investigative journalist Michael Morrah’s report.
  • Court documents say the story will focus on allegations of sexual abuse at a Lower Hutt orphanage in the late 1970s.

New Zealand’s top Catholic, Cardinal John Dew, has lost a long-running fight in the Supreme Court to suppress historic sexual abuse allegations against him.

Dew took action against Discovery New Zealand, owners of Newshub, to try and prevent them publishing a story by their experienced investigations reporter, Michael Morrah, which would report on allegations that Dew was involved in sexual abuse at a Catholic orphanage in the 1970s.

Dew, who was Archbishop of Wellington from 2005 until his retirement in 2023, has strenuously denied the allegations and police have closed an investigation into the claims without taking any action.

Dew has now failed at the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court to halt the television programme. He had sought leave from the Supreme Court to appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision not to prevent publication of the programme accusing him and others of sexual abuse of two children aged seven and eight in 1977 at the St Joseph’s orphanage in Lower Hutt.

The two siblings making the claims have also secured District Court permission to revoke the automatic name suppression for victims, if it applied to them.

Dew said the abuse did not happen, and independent evidence showed it could not possibly have happened at that time and place, and in the manner alleged.

Dew’s lawyer, Peter McKnight, said he wouldn’t be commenting, but wanted to “make it very clear that Cardinal Dew completely denies the allegations”. He said they would be “watching very carefully” any publication by Newshub.

Dew later released a statement in which he said he was told of the allegations on May 6 last year, a day after his retirement as Archbishop of Wellington was announced.

“I stated immediately, and state again now, that there have never been any instances of improper or abusive behaviour in my 48 years of priesthood,” he wrote.

He said he stepped aside from any ministry while police investigated. He said they interviewed him 30 weeks later. “From the moment, I was told of this alleged behaviour I have strenuously denied that the events described ever happened. This has now been thoroughly investigated by the New Zealand Police, others have been interviewed, and sworn affidavits provided to the police prove that these allegations could never have happened.

“The police have informed me that this investigation has now been concluded, their file has been closed and no charges will be laid against me. From the time that I became a Bishop, I have lived by my Episcopal motto ‘Peace through integrity’. Integrity has always meant a great deal to me and the words of that motto have guided my life.

“I do not know the person making the allegations and have never met him. The allegation against me is false, it may come from a well of anguish and grief arising from other reasons. I am acutely aware of how distressing this is for many; survivors who have put their trust in me, our church community and my family and friends. I state once again that all incidents of abuse are wrong. I hope and pray that all abuse victims will find peace and healing. I restate that these alleged events never happened.”

Dew tried three grounds to have publication halted: first, that courts could suppress the publication of criminal proceedings; that the court could rule that publication would undermine his fair trial rights and his opportunity to secure name suppression if police did prosecute; and third, that the publication would be defamatory and so could be halted in advance. He had earlier also suggested that publication could be a breach of privacy.

The court noted that if the leave to appeal was denied, then the “applicant’s name will be published, irrevocably, in connection with the allegations. But he may be vindicated at the trial of the proceeding in which the application was brought”.

The court said restraining a defamatory publication could only happen “for clear and compelling reasons. We are not persuaded that this is an appropriate case to revisit the rule.”

Discovery argued that they would plead truth, or alternatively, use a defence of responsible communication on a matter of public interest should Dew take defamation action. The Supreme Court said: “These defences should be tested at trial. It is not presently possible to say they have no reasonable prospect of success.”

Dew was ordered to pay costs of $2500 to Discovery.

Church spokesman David McLoughlin said: “The Church will not be making a comment on a story that has not been published.” He added: “I note that the judgement says: ‘The police have advised that they have concluded their investigation and no charges are to be laid.’ ”

The archbishop of Wellington, Paul Martin, on Thursday wrote to churches nationwide about the allegations. In the letter, Martin also noted the claims had been investigated by police and no charges laid.

Martin pointed out that Dew had retired last year at the age of 75, the standard retirement age for Catholic bishops. “In accord with our protocols, Cardinal John stood aside from all public church activities when the allegation was brought to the attention of the Church. Cardinal John has asserted his innocence throughout.

“Inquiries by the Church are not run concurrently to those being undertaken by the Police. Now that the Police investigation has concluded, Cardinal John continues to stand aside while Church inquiries proceed.

“This has been a distressing situation for all involved. I would ask that we pray for all those affected and offer support where we can.”

The church would normally run its own inquiry through its its in-house unit, the National Office for Professional Standards (NOPS), run by Christchurch lawyer Virginia Noonan. But because of Dew’s seniority, he’s covered by a 2019 Papal direction called Vos estis Lux Mundi, which means they will have to seek direction from the Vatican about any internal inquiry.