Churches Knew of Allegations against Notorious Paedophile Priests, Royal Commission Says

By Melissa Davey
The Guardian
October 20, 2020

The Anglican and Catholic churches knew about allegations against notorious paedophile priests years before they were convicted and jailed for child sexual abuse, missing crucial opportunities to stop them from abusing other children.

The findings were outlined in two unredacted and one previously unreleased report published by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse on Tuesday. The findings were previously redacted so as not to prejudice ongoing legal proceedings against the two abusers: the former Anglican dean of Newcastle Graeme Lawrence and the former Catholic priest Vincent Gerard Ryan.

Lawrence is the most senior Anglican church figure found guilty of child sexual abuse, after being convicted in July 2019 of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 1991 at his home at Christ Church Cathedral in Newcastle, New South Wales. He was sentenced to eight years in jail.

The commission’s report on case study 42, which examined the response of the Anglican diocese of Newcastle to child sexual abuse allegations, found the allegations that Lawrence was sexually abusing children were made on three separate occasions to the then Bishop Roger Herft.

First, Herft was told by leaders of a diocesan youth camp in 1995 that two boys had separately alleged that Lawrence had sexually abused them. In 1996, the commission found Herft was told by the then archbishop that Lawrence had been sexually abusing young boys. Then, in 1999, he was told by a bishop that Lawrence had been a perpetrator of child sexual abuse.

Herft told the royal commission that he could not recall these allegations being made to him.

“It seems extraordinary to us that the bishop of a diocese would have no recollection whatsoever of numerous people making allegations to him over a number of years that one of the most senior priests and powerful figures in the Diocese – the dean – had sexually abused children … and no recollection of discussing the allegations … We reject Bishop Herft’s evidence that he had no recollection of these matters.”

Herft also told the commission he had no memory of becoming concerned that there was a pattern of allegations against Lawrence. “It seems extraordinary to us that Bishop Herft would not have formed such a concern given the number of allegations made,” the commission found.

The commission also found that Lawrence was not a credible witness, and that his testimony to the commission was “on many occasions contradictory, evasive and implausible”. The commission said it was also satisfied that in 1981, when he was a senior priest in the Diocese of Riverina, Lawrence began “a sexual relationship with CKH, who was then 16 years old … Mr Lawrence continued to have a sexual relationship with CKH until around 1985, when CKH was 19 years old”.

The commission found Lawrence’s partner, Gregory Goyette, also sexually abused CKH, which Lawrence knew about.

“We reject Mr Lawrence’s submission that our terms of reference do not require us to make these findings,” the commission found. “It is correct that our terms of reference relate to the institutional response to allegations of child sexual abuse, but, in our view, it is highly relevant that one of the leaders of the Diocese, who was himself personally involved in the institutional response to certain survivors, sexually abused a child.”

Meanwhile the commission found in its report on case study 43, which examined the response of Catholic church authorities to allegations of child sexual abuse in the Maitland–Newcastle region, that Monsignor Patrick Cotter was made aware of allegations that Father Ryan had sexually abused multiple altar boys who were students at St Joseph’s primary school in 1975. At the time, Cotter was the priest in charge of St Joseph’s parish, and Ryan was the assistant priest.

Cotter was told by a nun that Ryan was abusing children through “oral and anal penetration, penis sucking and attempts at masturbation”.

“We are also satisfied that Father Ryan admitted to Monsignor Cotter that he had sexually abused altar boys at St Joseph’s,” the report found. “Despite the serious allegations reported to him directly, Monsignor Cotter professed to have little or no recollection of those events and the substance of the complaints. Given the gravity of the matters, his claimed lack of recollection defies belief.”

Cotter’s evidence was “generally unspecific, unclear or evasive,” the commission found.

“Monsignor Cotter sought to minimise the gravity of the conduct reported to him and to present the information provided to him as having been vague or inconclusive, when that was not the case. Monsignor Cotter, who was at the time the most senior priest in the Diocese, did not take appropriate or adequate steps to respond to these serious allegations. No official reprimand or sanction was put in place. The allegations were not properly documented and recorded in the Diocese’s files.”

The only step taken was to refer Ryan to a psychiatrist, and remove him from the parish, which the commission described as “completely inadequate”. Ryan only saw the psychiatrist once.

“Monsignor Cotter sought to protect the Church and Father Ryan,” the report said. “No steps were taken to protect the welfare of the children in the Diocese.”

There is also evidence that the 1975 incidents were reported to one of the diocesan consultors at the time, the report said. No counselling or support was provided to those primary school students at St Joseph’s who reported being sexually abused by Ryan. No one in or associated with the Church authorities reported the allegations against Ryan to police, the report found.

“The allegations should have been referred to the police, and not doing so was an abject failure to act in the best interests of the children of St Joseph’s Primary School and the Diocese,” the report found. “This was an opportunity to bring an end to Father Ryan preying sexually on children within the Diocese. Missing that opportunity had devastating consequences for those children Father Ryan went on to abuse in the future.”

Ryan was released from jail on parole in July, after serving 14 months of a three-year sentence for crimes against two boys in the late 90s. He had previously served 14 years in jail for the sexual abuse of 35 boys aged between six and 14 between 1972 and 1991, and was released from that sentence in 2010.

He was only stripped of his priestly faculties in August.








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.