Sacred Heart Mission's Father Ernie Smith stood down over sexual abuse claims
By Farrah Tomazin And Tammy Mills
February 6, 2018
Shockwaves are reverberating across Melbourne’s charity sector after Sacred Heart Mission founder Ernie Smith was stood down from all priesthood duties over sexual abuse allegations.
Volunteers were notified last week that the Archdiocese of Melbourne had investigated what is understood to be historical sexual abuse accusations relating to three women, one who was 17 years old at the time of the alleged offence, when Father Smith was a priest.
Two of the complaints were made to the church in 2005 and 2006, but the priest, who retired in 2007, was not barred from public duties until another allegation emerged in November last year.
The archdiocese says that while Father Smith is still technically a priest entitled to be called Father, they have adopted legal advice that he "no longer be considered a priest in good standing and his faculties to exercise public ministry be withdrawn".
Father Smith founded Sacred Heart Mission, which provides assistance to Melbourne’s homeless and vulnerable, more than three decades ago when he was the parish priest at St Kilda West.
The Age has been told the alleged abuse occurred before he started the not-for-profit group and the complainants were not clients, employees or volunteers at Sacred Heart Mission.
The accusations were investigated under the Melbourne Response, which is the Catholic Church’s internal complaints system that handles accusations of sexual abuse by priests.
It is believed the women have not made a report to police.
Sacred Heart Mission chief executive Cathy Humphrey and chair Mark Dohrmann said the news would deeply impact the group’s clients, staff, volunteers and parishioners.
“We were shocked and deeply saddened about the complaints upheld against Father Smith, a man who personified so much of the compassion that Sacred Heart Mission strives to bring to people who are most marginalised in our community,” they said in a statement.
“Our first priority in these circumstances is the victims. Sacred Heart Mission is comforted to know that full and ongoing support for the victims is being provided by the Archdiocese.”
Volunteers were notified last week in an email obtained by The Age.
In the email, Ms Humphrey said Father Smith had “accepted responsibility for the complaints”.
In a letter to the Parish, Archbishop Denis Hart said he had accepted a recommendation to remove Father Smith from public duties, noting the seriousness of the complaint, its affect on the victim, and "the pattern of behaviour of Father Smith".
"In each of the matters Father Smith acknowledged that he was responsible for the action as reported. He accepted the findings that he had acted in a manner inconsistent with the promise of celibacy and the expectations imposed by the church on clergy," Archbishop Hart wrote.
"I acknowledge the disappointment this will cause for many who have admired Father Smith's historic ministry to the marginalised, the vulnerable and the homeless poor.
"Many will be confused by the paradox of this ministry and his misconduct. Others in the parishes he served may be dismayed and saddened by his actions. The Archdiocese and I remain committed to the prevention of abuse, the care of all victims and survivors of sexual abuse."
Ms Humphrey and Mr Dohrmann said they would take action to ensure public recognition of the former priest at the Mission was removed.
Ms Humphrey indicated this included changing the name of a meeting room, an awards program and updating their website.
Based in Grey Street in St Kilda West, the Sacred Heart Mission was founded in 1982 when Father Smith “opened his door and shared a meal with a man who was hungry and homeless”, the group’s website stated.
"It was this first act of generosity which led to the formation of Sacred Heart Mission to provide the basic necessities of life - food, clothing, emergency relief, accommodation and companionship to people experiencing homeless and disadvantage in the Port Phillip area in Melbourne.”
The Age sought comment from Father Smith through the Melbourne Archdiocese, however a spokesman said he was not well and would not be in a position to respond.
The Age could not reach Father Smith independently for comment.