Category Archives: Melbourne Response
Australian bishop testifies on prevalence of child sex abuse in the church
Dying of cancer, Bishop Emeritus Geoffrey Robinson appeared Aug. 24 before the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to testify to the prevalence of child sexual abuse in the church.
He painted a sad picture of a brave and lonely Sisyphus with his band of bishops in tow, pushing a boulder with a reasoned response to the crisis up the Vatican Hill, only to have it pushed back by popes and cardinals who had no idea about the issue and a blindness about the incapacity of canon law to deal with it.
“However great the faults of the Australian bishops have been over the last 30 years, it still remains true that the major obstacle to a better response from the church has been the Vatican,” Robinson told the commission. Most of the Roman Curia saw the problem as a “moral one: if a priest offends, he should repent; if he repents, he should be forgiven and restored to his position. … They basically saw the sin as a sexual one, and did not show great understanding of the abuse of power involved or the harm done to the victims.”
Robinson entered the seminary at 12-years-old, was ordained a priest, and became a canon lawyer and then auxiliary bishop of Sydney. In 1996, when revelations of clergy sexual abuse of children in Australia had reached a crescendo, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference appointed him to find a solution. In 2004, he resigned as auxiliary bishop of Sydney after concluding that the church’s response was still inadequate.
“I eventually came to the point where I felt that, with the thoughts that were running through my head, I could not continue to be a bishop of a church about which I had such profound reservations,” Robinson wrote in a 2008 book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church. “I resigned my office as Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney and began to write this book, about the very foundations of power and sex within the church.”
He wrote books and went on lecture tours, calling for radical reforms within the church, and in the process lost and gained many friends.
He quickly came to the conclusion after his appointment by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to draw up a protocol to deal with child sexual abuse in 1996, that canon law was so inadequate for cases of sexual abuse that it would be a sham to use it. “We would have to invent something of our own,” he told the Royal Commission.
Prior to 1983, when he was consulted by the Vatican about a new draft of the Code of Canon Law, he found the words “pontifical secret” stamped over the document. He complained that if he were to give a reasoned response, he needed to discuss it with colleagues. He was told: “Just don’t give it to the media.”
In 1996, Robinson devised a protocol called “Towards Healing,” a system that was “outside, and indeed contrary to canon law.” In the first draft, he required these crimes to be reported to the police as the police were not the media. Pope Paul VI’s instruction, Secreta Continere of 1974, imposes the pontifical secret over allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children and contains no exception for reporting to the police. The barrage of statements by senior Curia figures from 1984 to 2002 made it abundantly clear that bishops should not report these allegations to the police.
But that was not the only conflict that “Towards Healing” had with canon law. It had its own system of investigation, and clergy could be placed on permanent “administrative leave.” None of this complied with canon law.
In his perceptive notes of the meeting in the Vatican in April 2000 to discuss child sexual abuse, Robinson wrote that the members of the Roman Curia showed an “an overriding concern to preserve the legal structures already in place in the Church and not to make exceptions to them unless this was absolutely necessary.”
He told the Commission how Italian Archbishop Mario Pompedda told the delegates how they might get around canon law, but he did not want a law that he had to get around. He wanted one he could follow, but “they never came up with it.” Robinson came away from that meeting knowing that the Australian bishops had no choice but to continue to go it alone, irrespective of what the fall out might be.
The extent to which he and the other Australian bishops were prepared to do that is starkly illustrated in the minutes of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference of Nov. 28, 2002, where they resolved to disobey Pope John Paul II’s 2001 Motu Proprio, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, which required all complaints of child sexual abuse to be referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which would then instruct the bishop what to do. They would only refer those cases where there was no admission by the priest that the abuse had occurred. Robinson told the Commission that the purpose behind that was to avoid being told by Rome what to do with those priests who admitted the abuse. That decision was well justified given the figures presented to the United Nations by the Vatican that only one third of priests against whom credible allegations of child sexual abuse had been made, have been dismissed. The claim that the Vatican has a policy of zero tolerance is pure spin.
This defiance of canon law was never going to last. Patrick Parkinson, professor of law at Sydney University, appointed by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to review “Towards Healing,” pointed out the problems of a local protocol that conflicted with canon law: priests permanently removed from the ministry simply appealed to Rome which ordered their reinstatement. The bishop had to comply or be sacked. Robinson told the Commission that “Towards Healing” was initially successful because a number of priests accepted that they could not continue to work as a priest, but “it later fell down because both sides changed.” Priests started to defend themselves with canon lawyers, and the victims went to civil lawyers.
Robinson was very critical of Pope John Paul II for a lack of leadership on this issue, and particularly his imposition in 1983 of a five-year limitation period that effectively meant that there could be no prosecution of priest paedophiles under canon law because their crimes had been “extinguished.” Prior to 1983, there was no limitation period for these crimes. After 1983, if a child was abused at the age of 7, and did not complain by the age of 12, there was no possibility of dismissing the priest under canon law.
Figures presented to the Commission indicate that in Australia, the limitation period meant that only 3 percent of accused priests could be dismissed, and that figure only increased to 19 percent with the extension of the period to 10 years from the 18th birthday of the victim in 2001. Robinson said the church has still not had the appropriate leadership on child sexual abuse from Pope Benedict XVI and not even from Pope Francis.
Robinson also criticized Australian Cardinal George Pell for refusing to join the other Australian bishops in adopting the “Towards Healing” protocol. Pell was party to the two-year consultations leading up to its adoption in November 1996, but, without reference to anyone, announced he was setting up his own system, the “Melbourne Response,” and then claimed he was the first in Australia to do something about clergy sexual abuse. Apart from accusing Pell of destroying a unified response from the Australian bishops, Robinson said he was an “ineffective bishop” for having lost the support of the majority of his priests who wished for him to be transferred somewhere else. Their wish was fulfilled. He is now in charge of the Vatican finances.
A reading of the many documents tendered to the Royal Commission provides even more evidence that the Vatican’s all but useless disciplinary system caused far more children to be abused than would otherwise have occurred. Robinson fought the good fight, but was ultimately defeated and resigned, exhausted.
In the end, the Australian bishops abandoned the courage they displayed under his leadership, and followed the lead of Pope Benedict XVI who, in his 2010 Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, ignored the Murphy Commission’s criticisms of canon law, and blamed the Irish bishops for failing to follow it. In submissions to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry and to the Royal Commission, the Australian bishops ignored what they knew of canon law’s failings, and blamed their predecessors for making “terrible mistakes” when their predecessors were demonstrably complying with canon law.
Australia has a peculiar cultural habit of creating heroes who struggle in vain, and are defeated — from the bushranger, Ned Kelly to the soldiers who were massacred at Gallipoli in the First World War. The Catholic church needs some heroes. Robinson, now terminally ill, is one of them.
[Kieran Tapsell is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (ATF Press 2014).]
Child sex abuse inquiry: Police asked repeat abuse victim if she was wearing ‘neon sign’, royal commission hears
Child sex abuse inquiry: Police asked repeat abuse victim if she was wearing ‘neon sign’, royal commission hears
By Pat Stavropoulos and Samantha Donovan
From the Link: Child sex abuse inquiry: Police asked repeat abuse victim if she was wearing ‘neon sign’, royal commission hears
A survivor of child sex abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest and a family member was asked by police if she was wearing a neon sign saying “come and get me” above her head when she was a teenager, an inquiry has heard.
Witness Julie Stewart broke down as she told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that she was repeatedly abused by Father Searson at Doveton, from when she was in grade three.
The inquiry heard that when she was 15, she was approached by police about allegations against Father Searson after they received reports she was a possible victim.
She said because she had also been sexually abused by a relative from the ages of five to eight, she found it hard to tell anyone she had also been abused by Father Searson.
She said her admission that she had been abused by two men prompted the police officer to remark “oh my God, what, were you wearing a neon sign above your head, ‘come and get me?'”.
The police took no further action.
She told the inquiry she would blame herself, often thinking there was something wrong with her.
Priest’s abuse began in primary school
Ms Stewart said the abuse began at the Holy Family School, where Father Searson was the parish priest.
She said he would often visit her class and hug the children, including her.
“At first I loved the attention,” she said.
“He was a priest, and it made me feel special.”
Ms Stewart told the royal commission Father Searson abused her between 12 and 14 times, beginning in 1984.
“It began with kisses on the lips,” she said.
“On about the fifth time and on each subsequent occasion, Father Searson also touched me.
“When he started to touch me, I knew it was wrong and it was sexual.”
After that, she said she would wear tracksuit pants or stockings to make it harder for him to touch her.
She told the inquiry the last time she went to confession was in 1985, when she was in grade four.
On that occasion, Father Searson placed her on his lap, so she could feel his erection against her backside.
“He pushed me hard against him. It hurt. He whispered in my ear, ‘you are a good girl, the Lord forgives you’,” she said.
“I snapped, I pushed myself off him, I ran out of the confessional, I was sobbing and hyperventilating.”
‘I will no longer be a victim’: Julie Stewart
Ms Stewart also spoke about how she tried to take her life as a young teenager.
She said she had become rebellious and hated her parents.
It was not until late 1996, or early 1997, after a chance meeting with a former teacher that she was told a Queen’s Counsel had been hired by then Archbishop of Melbourne George Pell to investigate Father Searson.
She said a year later, she received a cheque of $25,000 from the Archdiocese and a letter of apology from Cardinal Pell, through the Melbourne Response.
But she said the hearing to resolve her claim was distressing.
“I was made to sit facing Father Searson, and I was questioned by his lawyer for a long time,” she said.
“I was not prepared for how hostile the cross-examination was.
“I was taken into another room and asked to sign a confidentially agreement. I don’t remember what it said but I signed it. I just wanted to leave.
“When I left the hearing I broke down and cried … I felt that the whole process re-traumatised me.”
She completed her testimony, saying she still cried for the little girl she once was, but that she wanted to be a voice for survivors.
“The little girl that never got to be a normal little girl, doing all the things that little girls should do, the little girl that always wanted to fit in but always felt like a weirdo,” she said.
“Nothing can ever give that back to me. It is a life sentence and every day I make a choice to keep going.
“It is important to me to tell my story now, because I want peace for myself.
“I’m not ashamed anymore and I no longer blame myself. I will no longer be a victim.”
Does George Pell still have questions to answer over his handling of child sexual abuse claims?
By Louise Milligan
From the Link: Does George Pell still have questions to answer over his handling of child sexual abuse claims?
Cardinal George Pell is due to re-appear before the Royal Commission next month over his handling of allegations of child sexual abuse. One survivor of abuse gives evidence for the first time and claims George Pell downplayed the conduct of her abuser at a previous parliamentary inquiry.
Transcript of video below:
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Next month, Catholic Cardinal George Pell will make his much-anticipated appearance before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
New evidence about the case of Victorian predatory priest Peter Searson raises new questions for Cardinal Pell about how he managed allegations of sexual abuse.
The cardinal has consistently defended his handling of abuse by the clergy, but one victim claims she has evidence he knew far more than he’s let on.
Louise Milligan has the story.
LOUISE MILLIGAN, REPORTER: Julie Stewart is coming back to Melbourne, a place she ran away from almost 20 years ago.
JULIE STEWART: I just wanted it out of my life. We moved to Cairns. Been there ever since.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: What Julie ran away from is the abuse she suffered at her Catholic primary school, Holy Family Doveton in outer Melbourne. Here abused was parish priest, one Peter Searson.
JULIE STEWART: I used to see him on the playground cuddling – he was very affectionate with children and always had a smile on his face.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: One of the milestones at Holy Family that year was Julie’s first confession.
JULIE STEWART: I went to sit on the chair next to him and he said, “Come and sit on my knee.” So of course, I was delighted. “Father’s paying attention to me. Wait till I tell Nana.” And he asked, you know, “Do you love Father?” And I said, “Oh, of course.” I’m thinking the Lord – I love Father, I love the Lord. And he said, “No, no, no, do you love me? I said, “Oh, of course I love you.” And he said, “Give Father a kiss.” So I gave him a kiss on the cheek and he said, “No, no, no, give Father a kiss on the lips,” so I gave him a kiss on the lips and that was just the beginning.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: The abuse escalated over two years every time Julie went to confession.
JULIE STEWART: And then from there, it led to touching and him placing my hand on his private parts and kissing, more kissing and him trying to put his hands inside, um, my, um, my, um, underwear. His face would always light up when I walked in the room. Oof, you know, he’d light up straight away and I was just sickened by it.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Things came to a head when Searson’s abuse became more forceful.
JULIE STEWART: I snapped. And I remember putting my hands on his knees and pushing myself off. And I just turned around and I – I looked at him and he was sort of shocked that I’d done it and I just bolted out.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: She ran sobbing to a teacher and was brought to see the school principal, Graeme Sleeman.
GRAEME SLEEMAN, PRINCIPAL: I heard this child screaming and I ran out of my office. … And she was there and absolutely unconsolable.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Julie hasn’t seen Graeme Sleeman in almost 20 years.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: G’day, Jules. How are ya? Long time no see, eh? You right? It’s not the same as talking on the phone, is it?
LOUISE MILLIGAN: The principal and his former student have come to give evidence to the Royal commission into child sexual abuse about what Peter Searson did and how the Catholic Church failed to act on it. Julie only recently discovered how hard Sleeman fought for her.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: In all my life, I’ve never been frightened of anyone, but Peter Searson scared me, because he was a really, really creepy guy.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Principal Sleeman made it his mission to ensure Searson was punished for what he did to Julie. But his efforts to spur the Catholic Education Office to act went nowhere.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: Oh, they said, “We’ve passed it on, we’ve passed it on.” And they kept constantly telling me, “We do not have – that is not concrete evidence. We need concrete evidence.” I don’t know how much more concrete evidence we could give them.”
LOUISE MILLIGAN: The Church’s failure to take action against Searson led to Graeme Sleeman resigning in 1986.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: The diocese really did not assist me in providing a safe environment for any of the students in that school.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Parents sent dozens of letters supporting Sleeman and begging the Church to remove Father Searson. One letter from a 10-year-old student said, “If anyone should leave, it should be Father, as he sexually assaulted my friend”.
GAIL FURNESS, Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission: No investigation was undertaken. Indeed, there was no serious investigation of any complaint made during the ’80s and early-’90s.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Out of the blue, five years after her abuse when Julie was in high school, Julie received a visit from a police officer in 1990, a police officer who interviewed her about Searson. He seemed determined to prosecute. This is her statement:
JULIE STEWART: As he was leaving, actually, my Dad saw him out and he turned around and he said to my Dad, “We’ll get him.”
LOUISE MILLIGAN: We’ll get Searson.
JULIE STEWART: “We’ll get him. We’ll get him,” is what he said. And then a few days later, he rang and said there, “Wasn’t enough evidence, Julie.”
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Julie also told her high school principal. The principal contacted the detective and called Julie in a week later.
JULIE STEWART: And he said, “Well, there’s not much we can do about it.”
LOUISE MILLIGAN: The week after she spoke to the principal, Father Searson was invited to the high school to give communion to students, including Julie, at mass. She took an overdose of tablets the following week.
JULIE STEWART: I was alone in this whole journey and that’s how I felt totally and broken. … I’ve always felt there was a cover-up.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: It was the evidence of Cardinal George Pell to a Victorian parliamentary inquiry in 2013 that jolted Julie into anger.
QUESTIONER (May 27, 2013): Can you understand how victims regard what happened during this period as there was really hear no evil, see no evil, say nothing about evil from the Church?
GEORGE PELL, CARDINAL: I think that’s an objectionable suggestion with no foundation in the truth and I’ve – as I – no conviction was recorded for Searson on sexual misbehaviour. There might be victims.
JULIE STEWART: That pissed me off.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: “There might be victims.”
JULIE STEWART: Yeah, I was absolutely so angry … and I thought, “Let’s get ’em.”
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Julie Stewart was given a payout by the Catholic Church’s Melbourne response, set up by George Pell. She’s asking why, if George Pell believed only that there might be victims, he sent her this letter in 1998 which accepts that she had been abused:
GEORGE PELL (letter, male voiceover): “On behalf of the Catholic Church and personally, I apologise to you and to those around you for the wrongs and hurt you have suffered at the hands of Father Searson.”
LOUISE MILLIGAN: What do you think about George Pell?
JULIE STEWART: Not very much.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: It would be impossible for him not to know what was happening in Doveton.
LOUISE MILLIGAN: But it wasn’t until 1997 that Searson was finally prosecuted after he hit an altar boy. He was removed from all priestly duties.
Julie Stewart is determined the Church is now called to account for its failures.
JULIE STEWART: I was a victim as a child and I was a little girl, but I’m not gonna be a victim as an adult. And I’ll be buggered if they’re gonna try and shut me down and cover it up anymore.
LEIGH SALES: Louise Milligan reporting.
Video is online with link to story.