'Prevailing culture of secrecy' and abject failure to protect the safety of children in Melbourne archdiocese

05 December 2017 | by Mark Brolly

The report said Melbourne Archbishop Little dismissed serious allegations of child sexual abuse against a number of priests

Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has delivered a scathing indictment of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, describing a "prevailing culture of secrecy", dysfunction, subterfuge and abject failure to protect the safety and wellbeing of children under Archbishop Sir Frank Little, who led the Church there from 1974-96.

In a 289-page report released only 10 days before the Commission ends its five-year-inquiry with the delivery of its multi-volume final report, its Case Study 35 report into Australia's most populous diocese said: "We are satisfied that the evidence in the case study showed a prevailing culture of secrecy within the Archdiocese, led by Archbishop Little, in relation to complaints. Complaints were dealt with in a way that sought to protect the Archdiocese from scandal and liability and prioritised the interests of the Church over those of the victims."

Archbishop Little, who was knighted in 1977, died in 2008.

Parts of the report were redacted as the Commission’s Terms of Reference require that the Commission's work not prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings. A Commission statement said it is expected that an unredacted version of the report will be tabled and published at a later date.

The report, which followed public hearings by the Royal Commission in Melbourne in November and December 2015 and in Sydney in February and March 2016, said Archbishop Little dismissed or ignored serious allegations of child sexual abuse against a number of priests, failed to investigate the many allegations that were brought to his attention, did not report them to the police and moved offending priests to other parishes where they continued to offend.

It said the case of Fr Peter Searson was "remarkable in terms of the volume of complaints against him and the number of Church personnel to whom they were made".

The Archbishop had been aware of a long list of allegations against Fr Searson in Sunbury parish between 1974 and 1984, including the rape of a young woman and threatening a girl with a knife as well as conducting sex education classes with students in his bedroom, but nonetheless appointed Fr Searson parish priest at Holy Family, Doveton. Holy Family School was attached to the parish and in his new position, Fr Searson also became the employer of staff at the school.

Complaints continued to be made against him in Doveton, including that he pointed a gun at children and that he had made a "sexual advance" to a child in the confessional.

The Commissioners were satisfied that by the end of 1986, Archbishop Little knew of matters that "were undoubtedly sufficient to demonstrate that Father Searson ought to be removed from a parish appointment and posed a grave risk to the safety of children".

"The fact that Father Searson remained in a position of authority as a parish priest... is directly attributable to Archbishop Little’s ongoing failure to take action against Father Searson," the report said.

Fr Searson was removed from Doveton parish and placed on administrative leave by new Archbishop Pell in 1997 and died in 2009 without ever being charged with child sexual abuse or being laicised.

The Commissioners also criticised Archbishop Little's response to allegations against other clergy, including Fr Ronald Pickering, who suddenly fled from his parish of St James' Gardenvale to the UK in 1993. The Archbishop had used "subterfuge" to allow Fr Pickering to be treated as eligible for financial support from the Priests' Retirement Foundation.

The report also criticised the dysfunctional systems, procedures and practices and their idiosyncratic operation in the Archdiocese, which inevitably led to poor outcomes in responding to allegations of child sexual abuse. Dysfunctional systems included the structure of Catholic education in Victoria whereby the parish priest is the employer of staff at parish schools. 

The was compounded by Archbishop Little's highly centralised approach to dealing with complaints of abuse in which there were no effective checks and balances on the Archbishop’s exercise of powers in relation to priests who were the subject of complaints.

"As the evidence in the case study makes plain, a system for responding to complaints of child sexual abuse in which the exclusive authority for making decisions was vested in one person, is deeply flawed," the report said.

Archbishop Denis Hart, who has led the Church in Melbourne since 2001, said on the report's release that mishandling of complaints against priests and church personnel and the resulting lack of response to such complaints led to unnecessary suffering for many victims and their families.

"The Church should be a safe place for children but the events point to it having been unsafe for all those who are victims," Archbishop Hart said. "Where this abuse occurred resulting from the passivity or inactivity of predecessors of mine, I sincerely apologise and accept responsibility."

He expressed confidence that the Archdiocese and its parishes and schools had the policies, codes and processes required to ensure child safe environments and to deal with complaints.

"As a Church we will learn from this Case Study and the upcoming Royal Commission’s report and I make a commitment to greater transparency in our processes, in order to assist victims and their families."

PICTURE: Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart arrives at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing into the Melbourne archdiocese at the County Court in Melbourne, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015 ©PA

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