The Catholic Church described paedophile priests working in parishes across Australia as ticking “time bombs”, damning minutes from a high-level meeting of top church officials in 1992 reveals.
Minutes tendered to the child abuse royal commission from a special issues committee meeting at the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said it was agreed there were “serious ‘time bombs’ ticking away in a number of dioceses”.
The former second-in-charge of the Melbourne Archdiocese, Bishop Peter Connors, who chaired the committee, testified on Thursday that the reference applied not only to churches in Melbourne but also in other dioceses.
Senior counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, SC, asked Bishop Connors if the minutes referred to priests and brothers who had serious allegations against them and clergy who were accepted within the church to be sexual offenders.
“That would certainly be the case, I think, in particular the Diocese of Ballarat, the big time bomb was ticking away there,” Bishop Connors said.
Asked whether it applied to Doveton, where a succession of paedophile priests including Peter Searson were sent over three decades, Bishop Connors said: “I expect it would have been, but there would certainly be other dioceses where that problem, of time bombs ticking away, existed.”
The commission heard that the meeting, set up to deal with allegations against clergy, noted the importance of treating priests fairly.
Bishop Connors, who was vicar-general of the Melbourne archdiocese from 1976 to 1987, said advice from the Catholic Church’s insurers was to “admit nothing” in a bid to limit future compensation to abuse victims.
He admitted that he contributed to a culture of keeping accusations of clergy sex abuse against children in-house.
“I would accept that was almost certainly the way that I was approaching those kind of accusations,” he said.
Asked by commission chair Peter McClellan whether he recalled anyone in the church’s senior management ever expressing a contrary view, he said: “No, I don’t.”
Bishop Hilton Deakin testified on Thursday that he was told to refer complaints directly to Frank Little, who headed the Melbourne Diocese from 1974 to 1996, unless they were about a priest’s sexual behaviour.
“He said, ‘there’s one form of complaint you tell me verbally – and do it at breakfast or at dinner at night – and that’s the end of it; there’s no discussion, no analysis, no further’, and that was paedophilia.”
Bishop Deakin, vicar-general from 1987 to 1992, said complaints about Doveton priest Peter Searson were widely known within the church.
“You had to be in the parish for five minutes and you would hear about Fr Searson,” he said.
Bishop Deakin said when he was an auxiliary bishop he spoke to the Apostolic Nuncio, the Pope’s representative in Australia, about Fr Peter Searson.
“I was telling him about this priest, who was a most evil person, doing evil things to little children in a school and had been doing it for quite some time,” he said.
“I was hoping and praying that something would be done.”
He said the Apostolic Nuncio thanked him and walked away.
Complaints about Searson’s alarming behaviour date back to 1977 when he was parish priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Sunbury and continued in the mid-1980s when he started at Holy Family in Doveton.
The church has paid out almost $300,000 to Searson’s victims, but he died in 2009 before facing any child sex abuse charges.
Archbishop Hart has previously accepted that children were put in danger because investigations under former Archbishop Little into several priests, including Searson, were not carried out properly.
Bishop Connors said on Thursday that until the mid-1980’s church officials did not fully understand the “horrible effects” caused to victims of child sexual abuse. “Most of us did not understand the horrible effects of sex assault of a minor,” he said.
He said it would take generations for trust in the Catholic Church to be restored.
“There has been a terrible abuse of the trust that people gave implicitly to priests, and that trust was sacred, but it was destroyed by priests, the way they acted; it will take generations for that trust to be restored,” he said.
The hearing in Melbourne continues.
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