A Priest's Long Fall from Grace

The Press [Christchurch, New Zealand]
May 18, 2004

Alan Woodcock preyed on his students, he gained their confidence then used them for his own sexual gratification. Even when his employer, the Catholic Church, found out, he continued. Fran Tyler looks at his past and the cover-up that kept him from coming to justice till now.

Alan Woodcock first sexually abused a pupil in 1978. The boy was in the fourth form at St John's College, Hastings, when Woodcock, ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church's Society of Mary in 1972, enticed him to come with him in his car to choose a location for a school trip.

Instead, the priest took him to the hills behind Taradale. There he removed the belt from the boy's pants and pulled them down. However, the boy complained, telling him to stop. The boy never said a word about the incident, and Woodcock continued to be a teacher, albeit a mediocre one.

A 1979 report by Father Noel Delaney described reports of Woodcock's teaching ability at St John's as "rather undistinguished".

"The opinion of the staff was that he had much to give but lacked in confidence and the ability to organise himself."

Despite his ability as a musician and composer, "even in this area he was disappointing", Father Delaney wrote.

To help Woodcock improve his skills, he was posted to Christchurch in 1979 and enrolled at Canterbury University to study music. But Woodcock's sexual desires led him astray.

Woodcock, then aged 31, picked up a 17-year-old boy in Cathedral Square and offered him a ride home to Rangiora. Instead, he took him to Canterbury University's chaplaincy's residence in Riccarton and indecently assaulted him.

Woodcock, who succeeded in having his name, but not his occupation, suppressed, was convicted and given a suspended sentence. Father Delaney wrote to the court saying he had been incredulous when he heard about the incident.

"I can vouch that we can offer him the fullest human and spiritual support at our disposal. While we cannot condone the behaviour that comes before the court, we must offer him the kind of fellowship that will give his future every hope of realising the kind of service to his fellow men that is inseparable from the commitment to religious life that he has made."

The next year, Woodcock was moved to Wellington, where he was appointed to St Mary of the Angels in Boulcott St and went to Victoria University to complete his music degree. At the end of 1981, he was appointed to St Patrick's College in Silverstream, a Catholic school for boys that offered education to boarding and day pupils.

While there, he abused several boys, enticing them to his bedroom with cigarettes, pretending friendship and concern.

But one of his victims complained to then college rector Father Michael Curtain.

A confidential memo outlined the actions taken by the church and school after the complaint. Written by Father Curtain to the provincial (head of the Society of Mary in New Zealand), Father Fred Bliss, on August 22, that year, the letter said Woodcock had put "the name, reputation and future of the school in serious jeopardy".

It had also "placed me (Father Curtain) in an invidious position when dealing with certain boys".

"My hands were tied. Thus, in a recent stealing inquiry, if I had judged that one boy (who had stolen and lied) merited expulsion, I could not have done so for fear of the consequences. One other boy told me that he had already spoken to his parents about certain alleged indiscretions that had taken place with him."

Father Curtain went on to outline "certain precautions" that Woodcock had to take.

These included: leaving the door to his bedroom open if a boy needed to see him, "unless the visit is of a confessional nature or a similarly private matter".

"Finally, I suggested that, to cover any possible eventuality, he should make immediate moves to acquire a passport," Father Curtain wrote.

In an interview with police in 1995, Father Curtain said Woodcock's antics came to his attention after a complaint from a boy.

"I rang the provincial and said that, true or not, the allegations meant that Alan Woodcock should be moved. The provincial said that he would shift him."

But Woodcock was allowed to complete 1982 at St Patrick's.

Asked by the officer why the complaint was never followed up, Father Curtain said: "I suppose there were two reasons. There was a different climate of opinion in those days, (we) didn't expect those things to happen, and whether the allegations were true or false, action had been taken by shifting him and giving him the guidelines".

Asked if Woodcock was transferred to protect his name, Father Curtain replied: "Ahhh . . . yes". The direction to get a passport "would have been the normal course in those days to take; if we wanted someone to get counselling or help in this area . . . the places to go for counselling were overseas," he told police.

In 1983, Woodcock was appointed to Highden noviate, near Palmerston North.

In a letter advising Woodcock of his new appointment, Father Bliss said he hoped Woodcock would take the opportunity to seek "that specialist help in Palmerston North that you need".

He then thanked him for the contribution he had made to St Patrick's.

While at Highden, Woodcock continued to offend, revisiting boys he had abused or met at St Patrick's.

In 1984, the church moved him to Futuna Catholic retreat in Karori.

There he befriended a teenage boy and his parents. Woodcock became a regular guest at the family's home. The boy's parents noticed a dramatic change in their son, and eventually he disclosed that Woodcock had sexually abused him.

In 1985 Woodcock was sent back to Highden.

The next year, in February 1986, Woodcock was sent to St John of God Hospital in Sydney for counselling to help him cope with his homosexuality and associated depression. After almost 12 months of treatment, he returned to New Zealand in December of that year and went back to the Karori retreat. There he twice sexually abused a youth.

The following December, the father of one of Woodcock's Futuna victims complained to the church about the abuse.

Woodcock was sent to Ireland in 1988 for further counselling with a specialist priest counsellor, where he did voluntary work with drug addicts.

In 1990, he moved to London and took a job as a crisis intervention counsellor at Heathrow Airport.

In 1994, St Patrick's pupil Terry Carter laid a complaint with police about Woodcock. The year after that, another St Patrick's boy came forward, complaining that Woodcock had abused him in 1982.

However, Woodcock refused a request by Interpol for an interview about the complaints and the matter was left there till Mr Carter settled a six-year civil court case with the church. In 2002, publicity surrounding the settlement brought forward more Woodcock victims and police sought to extradite him from London.

Woodcock fought the extradition, denying all the allegations and telling the High Court in London: "I do not see how I can defend myself against allegations that are so old. I have little recollection of dates and times going back that far. I am not even able to recollect some of the persons referred to . . ."

However, his victims did not forget him so easily and nor could the Catholic Church, which has been left to pick up the costly pieces. The policeman in charge of the case, Detective Sergeant Murray Porter, says, though many of Woodcock's victims have come forward, he believes there are many more who have not. It is unlikely that the full extent of Woodcock's offending will ever be revealed, he says.


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