A suspected paedophile priest, British-born Ronald Pickering, reportedly received almost AU$200,000 (£97,000) from the Archdiocese of Melbourne for almost a decade after he evaded Australian authorities in 1993 and fled to his homeland, where he died in 2009.
The Sunday Age newspaper in Melbourne reported on 10 January that Pickering, who is believed to have abused at least 16 children but never faced justice, was one of a number of abusive priests who received pension, housing and private medical insurance benefits while victims received one-off payments of $31,000 to $37,000 under the church's Melbourne Response redress scheme.
The paper said parishioners had unwittingly been partly funding the assistance through their donations into church collection plates, which they believed went towards the local church or fundraising for retired priests.
It said Archbishop Sir Frank Little, who led the Church in Melbourne from 1974-96, appointed Pickering "Pastor Emeritus" in 1993, entitling him to additional payments, even though he had been aware of complaints against Pickering as early as 1986. The current Archbishop, Denis Hart, stopped the payments in 2002.
"Despite being personally aware of complaints as early as 1986, then Melbourne Archbishop Frank Little ordered Pickering's retirement entitlements be boosted in the wake of his impromptu departure," the Sunday Age said.
"'At this time the Archbishop does not intend appointing Father Pickering as Pastor Emeritus. However, he would appreciate your regarding Father Pickering, in this exceptional case, as qualifying for receipt of those monies which would normally be granted to PEs,' the Priests Retirement Foundation was instructed."
A spokesman for the archdiocese told the newspaper the church was providing support to six priests with criminal convictions for child sex crimes, including four who had been laicised. Nine others received payments until their deaths.
Pickering was ordained in 1957 in the UK and arrived in Melbourne shortly afterwards. He was an assistant priest at various parishes including at St Mary’s parish, East St Kilda, where he was accused of abuse.
Later, he moved to St James' parish in the Melbourne suburb of Gardenvale (pictured above), where again he faced accusations of abuse, on one occasion in 1986 taking extended leave in England after Archbishop Little informed him that a complaint had been made.
In March 1993, Pickering resigned as parish priest of Gardenvale and asked Archbishop Little for an appointment as Pastor Emeritus, saying he planned to retire to Tasmania. His resignation was accepted on 26 March 1993 and, at his request, he was appointed Administrator of the parish until 30 June that year.
Senior Counsel assisting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Ms Gail Furness, told a public hearing of the Commission in Melbourne last November that Pickering suddenly left Australia and on 14 May 1993 arrived in London.
"He later described his departure as embarrassing and unexpected," Ms Furness said.
"A solicitor’s letter was received by the Archdiocese of Melbourne in December 1993 seeking compensation for sexual assaults alleged to have been committed by Pickering in 1966. By this time, Pickering had left Australia ... Pickering’s faculties as a priest were removed in January 1994."
Ms Furness said 19 people had made claims of child sexual abuse through the Melbourne Response in relation to Pickering over alleged incidents from 1960 to 1989 inclusive. Sixteen claims led to compensation totalling $881,000, including treatment, legal and other costs - an average of about $55,000 per claimant. Of the 19 claims, 12 were made before his death.
Last year, arsonists were suspected of attacking three Catholic churches in Melbourne associated with Pickering and another deceased paedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell during Holy Week, with St James’ in Gardenvale gutted (pictured above) and St Mary’s in St Kilda East damaged (The Tablet, 9 April 2015).
Golden Globe-winning actor Rachel Griffiths, a former parishioner of St James’, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that she was “quite elated, like many of my generation” by the fire at St James, given its connection with Pickering. “For the community here, it’s kind of the haunted house on the hill,” she said.
In evidence to the Royal Commission on 1 December last year, Archbishop Hart said that when it came to his knowledge that Pickering was being funded by the Priests' Retirement Foundation, and Church authorities in Melbourne didn't know where he was, "I refused to be part of that subterfuge and I withdrew the funding".
"Initially, we knew he was in England and we had an address; we found out that he was no longer at that address, and the person who made contact with the diocese wouldn't tell us where he was, and therefore I wasn't prepared to be part of a subterfuge that would conceal from any authorities that might be wanting to be in contact with him the fact of his address ... I made the executive decision that we wouldn't - that's about 2002, I think - that we wouldn't fund him; if we didn't know where he was, we were not being part of any concealment from the authorities."
Archbishop Hart acknowledged that Archbishop Little's decision to remove Pickering's priestly faculties rather than suspend him would avoid publicity.
Ms Furness: "Again, that's another illustration of the Church operating in secrecy in order to protect its reputation?"
Archbishop Hart: "Yes."