Church Leaders Hit Back at Clergy Abuse Inquiry Claims
By Barney Zwartz
March 29, 2013
[Bishop Hart's statement]
[Cardinal Pell's statement]
|Cardinal George Pell. Photo: AFP
|Archbishop Denis Hart. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
Australia's two most senior Catholic prelates, Cardinal George Pell and Archbishop Denis Hart, have repudiated as inaccurate allegations against them at Victoria's clergy sex abuse inquiry.
Melbourne Archbishop Hart denied testimony by Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay to the parliamentary inquiry that the church has hindered and obstructed police, and challenges police about why they have not acted already if they have evidence of such behaviour.
Cardinal Pell again rejected claims by Melbourne lawyer Vivian Waller that he was present in 1969 when a child described being raped to another priest, and attacked the claims as ''seriously defamatory'' and possibly a contempt of Parliament and professional misconduct.
Their responses were posted on Thursday on the inquiry website, on a new section called ''right of reply''. Archbishop Hart first wrote on October 17 and Cardinal Pell's statement is dated January 15.
Senior church figures have been furious at the stream of negative headlines as the inquiry unfolded, with the church not due to give evidence until the end, and have wanted to make an earlier rebuttal.
Besides the police and victims' groups, an array of experts have savaged the church's response to clergy sex abuse, including claims such as that one in 15 Melbourne priests is a child abuser, that Catholic priests offend at six times the rate of all other churches put together, and that the church's protocols are designed to protect the church rather than help victims.
The police submission, which recommended criminalising some of the church's alleged actions to hinder investigations, said the church had dissuaded victims from reporting crimes to police, alerted suspects about allegations, moved or protected suspects and never reported a single case to police.
Archbishop Hart's five-page rebuttal says the church consistently co-operates with police, encourages and helps victims report abuse to police and has made constructive proposals. But he says the church is obliged to respect victims who do not want to go to the police - ''it would be unconscionable to compel them to make a report to police against their will''.
He says: ''If Victoria Police has evidence that the church of today deliberately conceals evidence or impedes investigations, or conceals or facilitates child sexual assault, of course this should be investigated and I am puzzled why this has not already been done under existing laws.'' Archbishop Hart's statement says the police submission raises serious matters not previously raised with the church or its independent commissioner, Peter O'Callaghan, QC. It says 14 priests in Melbourne have criminal convictions for child abuse, of whom eight have been defrocked and four are dead.
On the same day that police gave their evidence last October, lawyer Vivian Waller told the inquiry that Cardinal Pell refused to listen to a boy who was raped in Ballarat in 1969 soon after the event, and that he was in the room when the victim told another priest what happened.
Cardinal Pell immediately denied the claim, saying he was not in Australia when the boy was raped and did not go to Ballarat until 1971. Ms Waller riposted that although the rape was in 1969 she did not say when the victim tried to tell him, and Cardinal Pell went to court in November to get the transcript of the trial of the rapist, Brother Robert Best.
The statement posted on Thursday by Cardinal Pell's media director, Katrina Lee, says the court transcript shows the victim did try to complain in 1969, when Cardinal Pell was overseas.
''It is of some concern that Dr Waller made these false allegations against Cardinal Pell and then failed to retract them when it became apparent to her that they could not have been true,'' Ms Lee says. ''False accusations such as this are not only seriously defamatory but can (in certain circumstances) amount to a contempt of Parliament and professional misconduct. At the very least, the inquiry, the media and the public has been seriously misled.''
Dr Waller said she would respond to the inquiry after talking to her client. ''If the archdiocese of Sydney believe I have engaged in professional misconduct I invite them to bring a formal complaint,'' she said.