In the Name of the Law
MONDAY 11th August 2014
They were sexually abused by the clergy and then found themselves targeted by the Church’s lawyers. Why did it happen and who was responsible for the strategy?
This week on Four Corners, reporter Quentin McDermott reveals the systematic way the Catholic Church sought to conceal the sexual abuse of children, using lawyers to minimise the potential financial impact to the organisation.
Talking to the abused, their families and employees of the Church, and by examining the detail of Royal Commission testimony, McDermott pieces together a strategy that even those inside the Church now concede was misplaced and utterly unethical.
“It’s a major, major crisis. It’s not only a crisis of scandal and crime; it’s also a crisis of faith and credibility.”
The program begins by looking at two cases where the Church clearly accepted that all the available evidence suggested abuse had happened, even offering a small settlement. When this was rejected, the lawyers acting on behalf of the Church argued the abuse had never happened.
“Firstly they disputed that the abuse had occurred and then they denied that our daughters had suffered from that abuse.”
The investigation examines the tactics employed by the Church in negotiating with victims in private, often with no legal representation, during compensation negotiations.
In case after case it becomes clear that the key objective has been to minimise financial costs. In each of the cases examined, the victims firmly believe the legal strategies employed constituted a second round of abuse. As one Catholic priest told Four Corners, it’s an approach that could not be justified in any way:
“It’s been a misguided attempt to preserve the Church’s assets… the real assets of the Church are its people.”
‘IN THE NAME OF THE LAW’, reported by Quentin McDermott and presented by Kerry O’Brien, goes to air on Monday 11th August at 8.30pm on ABC. It is replayed on Tuesday 12th August at 11.00am and 11.35pm. It can also be seen on ABC News 24 on Saturday at 8.00pm, ABC iview or abc.net.au/4corners.
In the Name of the Law – Monday 11 August 2014
KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: How the Catholic Church used the law to hide its sins: welcome to the Four Corners.
A great deal of shocking revelation of systematic institutional abuse of children over many decades has by now washed through the various official inquiries into child abuse in Australia.
But if you think by now you’ve heard it all, you haven’t.
Some of the great iconic pillars of virtue have been sucked into the vortex of scandal in the process, none more so than the Catholic Church.
Earlier this year the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse scrutinised the Catholic Church’s nationwide policy on the issue, called “Towards Healing.”
One case in particular, that of abuse victim John Ellis, exposed a history of heavy-handed legal tactics by the Sydney Archdiocese. Next week the scrutiny turns to Melbourne and a strategy set up by its then archbishop, George Pell, in 1996.
It’s inevitable that the Royal Commission will again zero in on the Church’s legalistic pressure tactics in its dealings with victims. And again, as new evidence we present tonight will show, the Church hierarchy and its lawyers are likely to be facing serious questions on their past actions.
Quentin McDermott reports.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT, REPORTER: It’s Saturday evening at St Mary of the Angels Basilica in Geelong and Father Kevin Dillon is getting ready for Mass.
If there’s one topic here in Victoria that’s sacred, it’s football.
KEVIN DILLON, FR, ST MARY OF THE ANGELS PARISH, GEELONG: Freo are being done by St Kilda. It’s only the second quarter, though. Are the Cats playing GWS?
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As with other Catholic congregations around Australia, attendances are down and many of the pews lie empty.
It’s a sign of the deep distress felt by the faithful at the Church’s litany of sex crimes and, more than that, of the Church’s abject failure to respond appropriately.
KEVIN DILLON: A lot of people are looking for care and support from within the Church. And the horrific thing is: when they have looked for it they have found it wanting and, ah, they are still being left in dire straits.
(Addressing congregation in prayer) In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Father Dillon’s answer has been to set up a victims’ support group called Lifeboat.
KEVIN DILLON: The prime purpose of Lifeboat is to say to the people: you matter. We care about you and we will do what we can to, ah, help you because the lifeboat – when you were assaulted, um, by a Church person, be it a priest or a brother or whoever – um, the- the lifeboat of connection with God went down with the ship.
This is our little effort in our own small way to put that lifeboat up again.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But Father Dillon’s mission stands in stark contrast to a Catholic hierarchy which for years has employed teams of lawyers to fight victims in the courts and minimise the Church’s exposure to damages.
KEVIN DILLON: It’s been a- a misguided attempt to preserve the Church’s assets, ah, and the Church’s reputation.
(Addressing congregation) Behold the Lamb of God.
But the real assets of the Church are its people. Those assets have been damaged, in many cases irreparably: not just the- the victims and not just their families but so many people who’ve looked upon this horrific saga and have voted with their feet.
The awful thing is it didn’t have to happen this way.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Why it did happen this way, and why the Church treated victims in the way it did, is now being forensically examined at the Royal Commission. And the Church’s legal strategy is front-and-centre in that examination.
(Footage of Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 26 March 2014)
GEORGE PELL, CARDINAL: In a legal sense, uh, we always acted honestly. And I… believe, in a legal sense, there was nothing done that was improper.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: John Ellis was 14 years old when he first became a victim of clergy sexual abuse. Forty years later, the pain remains etched in his face.
Father Aidan Duggan, his abuser, was a priest in his 50s who at first he admired and trusted.
(Footage of Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 10 March 2014)
JOHN ELLIS, LAWYER AND CHILD ABUSE VICTIM: Uh, my name is John Andrew Ellis and I’m a solicitor.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In March, John Ellis told his story to the Royal Commission.
JOHN ELLIS: I was ashamed of what was happening and I knew that it was meant to be secret.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Years after these events, John Ellis, by now a successful solicitor, suffered a severe traumatic reaction to his childhood abuse.
Looking for help and support, he approached the Catholic Church’s “Towards Healing” program and disclosed what had occurred. But the senior churchman’s response seemed inappropriate.
JOHN ELLIS: He was telling me that it was, you know, all a long time ago and that, um, you know, the police were probably not going to be very interested in that a-and really there wasn’t much could be done about it. And you know, they did have a- a process but, um, you know, it might be best, all things considered, um, to just go away and move on with my life.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: John Ellis pressed the Church to accept his story and in 2003 a Church assessor decided that, more likely than not, the abuse had occurred and had damaged his mental, physical and emotional health.
With his health in decline, John Ellis lost his high-paying legal job and requested $100,000 in compensation for the harm done to him in childhood by the Church.
But he was offered just $30,000 – with a catch.
JOHN ELLIS: I was told that um, “By the way, you need to sign a- a deed of release a-and sign off your legal rights, ah, before we’ll pay you this money.”
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: John Ellis felt he was left with no choice but to lodge a claim in court.
JOHN ELLIS: You know, looking back at it, I-I can say hand-on-heart that I might’ve been prepared to accept their payment of $30,000 if they’d actually treated me with respect.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Instead, the decision was taken to fight John Ellis’ claim and fight it hard, as a win against him would protect the Church’s assets against claims from other victims.
JOHN ELLIS: That was a deliberate strategy to send a message to, to people: don’t come after the Church.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: George Pell, then Archbishop of Sydney, had hand-picked a firm of solicitors, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, to fight the case.
And this internal email shows the Archbishop’s private secretary, Dr Michael Casey, commenting approvingly: “I think they’re approaching it the right way to knock E[llis] out.”
JOHN ELLIS: They had a, a decision to make, you know, whether to deal with the claim ethically and-and justly and-and compassionately, or-or whether to take, take a hard line and knock me out.
Um, Dr. Casey’s, ah, email was, was affirming the instructions that the latter and, and more shameful course was the one that had been chosen by the Church.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Remarkably, Archbishop Pell’s instructions to his team were to set aside the Church’s own assessment that John Ellis was telling the truth.
As a result, John Ellis was subjected to days of cross-examination in court about his private life and whether the abuse had occurred.
JOHN ELLIS: The dagger to the heart really was, was when the question was put about whether these things really happened. And the suggestion was made that, you know, I was somehow making the whole thing up.
Um, I- I think really from that, from that point in time there was, there was no turning back for-for me. Um, I… I couldn’t have any trust in the Church as an institution once that was done.
(Footage of Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 18 March 2014)
PAUL MCCANN, PARTNER, CORRS CHAMBERS WESTGARTH: Well, I think it’s o-, it’s only a portion of the cross-examination…
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: At the Royal Commission, the Catholic Church’s lawyers were grilled about the legal and moral stance they had taken in attacking Ellis.
PETER MCCLELLAN, QC, CHIEF COMMISSIONER: It’s a fundamental challenge to Mr Ellis and it shouldn’t have happened, should it?
PAUL MCCANN: Uh… on reflection, probably not.
(Footage of Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 20 March 2014)
PETER MCCLELLAN: Mr Dalzell, we’ve got the transcript. You sat there while your counsel put in issue whether or not Mr Ellis was telling the truth about having been abused. That’s the position, isn’t it?
JOHN DALZELL, FMR SENIOR ASSOCIATE, CORRS CHAMBERS WESTGARTH: It is, your Honour, yes.
PETER MCCLELLAN: Can you explain how ethically you could sit there and do that?
JOHN DALZELL: Your Honour, I don’t think it was ever put to Mr Ellis that he was lying about the abuse.
(Footage of Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 26 March 2014)
GAIL FURNESS, SC, COUNSEL ASSISTING THE COMMISSION: Cardinal, Corrs weren’t your moral advisers, were they?
GEORGE PELL: No. They received im-, instructions from me on this point and they said that, er, the option that th-they recommended to us was mo-, was legally proper.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: At the heart of the Church’s defence was the argument that the Church’s trustees only deal with property and can’t be held liable for the criminal actions of priests.
It became known as the “Ellis Defence” and it meant that there was no one John Ellis could sue because by now Father Duggan, his abuser, was dead.
(To Francis Sullivan) It makes the senior hierarchy, it makes the bishops and archbishops look like very slippery characters, legally speaking?
FRANCIS SULLIVAN, CEO, TRUTH, JUSTICE AND HEALING COUNCIL: Times have changed now and, uh, what’s abundantly clear is that the Catholic Church needs to demonstrate to the community its genuine bona fides that the interests of victims is paramount and that they need to provide victims who want to bring, um, a case for damages against the Church: they need to provide them with a legal entity to sue.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In 2007 John Ellis lost his bid to take his case to the High Court and was handed a bill for costs of more than $500,000.
The Church, through its lawyers Corrs Chambers Westgarth, continued to pursue him for payment even after being told that his health had deteriorated further.
It took three years for the Archdiocese of Sydney to relent and waive the costs.
(To Francis Sullivan) Why was John Ellis treated in the fashion he was by the Church’s lawyers? I mean, that was unforgivable, wasn’t it?
FRANCIS SULLIVAN: Yes, it was unforgivable.
(Footage of Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 27 March 2014)
PETER GRAY, SC, COUNSEL FOR CATHOLIC CHURCH: I, I know what it is that the Cardinal wishes to say…
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: At his final appearance to date at the Royal Commission, Cardinal Pell apologised.
GEORGE PELL: And at the end of this gruelling appearance for both of us at this Royal Commission, I want publicly to say sorry to him for the hurt caused, uh, him by the mistakes made and admitted by me and some of my archdiocesan personnel during the course of the Towards Healing process and litigation.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Do you believe his apology was sincere?
JOHN ELLIS: I… I’m inclined to believe that he regrets taking that course, um, but I’m not really sure how much that has to do with being hauled before the, the Royal Commission and-and exposing, ah, the Church to the sort of scrutiny that it would rather avoid, um, and-and the door having been opened to that by, by how I was treated.
Um, I don’t know the man personally. I don’t know what’s in his heart. Ah, I don’t know if it really has any impact on him that, that, that people have been harmed by that. I certainly know at the time he was quite happy for me to be fodder for whatever the Church’s objectives were.
(Archive footage of then-Archbishop Pell holding service)
GEORGE PELL: Through the Gospel and the Eucharist…
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: John Ellis’ case isn’t a one-off. It followed a pattern of legal strategies adopted by Archbishop Pell in Victoria for dealing with the victims of the Church’s worst child abusers.
Among these men was Father Kevin O’Donnell, whose record of sexual assaults lasted nearly 50 years.
CHRISSIE FOSTER, VICTIMS’ MOTHER: One solicitor who represented many victims of O’Donnell, um, he called him the two, “two-a-day man”. So, many, many crimes there.
ANTHONY FOSTER, VICTIMS’ FATHER: And there seems to be evidence of offending in the mid-40s, going right through to, at least with our children, in the, the late 80s, so – and early 90s. So it went on for an awful long time and we’re confident that the Church knew about that offending happening along, through those years.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Chrissie and Anthony Foster’s daughters, Emma and Katie, were repeatedly raped by Father O’Donnell at Sacred Heart Primary School in Oakleigh, in outer Melbourne.
Evidence that the Church knew about Father O’Donnell from the very beginning comes from a man who, as a young altar boy, was abused by Father O’Donnell in the mid-1940s.
The boy told his mother, who removed him from the school. She also informed the nuns, but Father O’Donnell was left in place.
(To Vivian Waller) What outcome could there have been if they had acted on that complaint?
VIVIAN WALLER, SOLICITOR, WALLER LEGAL: Well, the course of history could have been changed if the Church had responded to very early complaints about O’Donnell. And certainly other children who suffered throughout the course of time, such as the, um, children of Mr and Mrs Foster, would not have been exposed to the risk of his sexual predation.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: This letter, written by a priest in 1994 and shown tonight for the first time, reveals that as early as 1958 the Melbourne Archdiocese received a report “regarding interfering by Kevin O’Donnell” with a boy.
The letter records that: “Someone from the cathedral had come to see Kevin O’Donnell and also had talked to [the boy]… and that everything was squared up since that time.”
In the ensuing decades Father O’Donnell continued to commit crimes against children. In 1983 he baptised Katie Foster at Sacred Heart Church in Oakleigh.
Six years later he was in high spirits at a confirmation service in Oakleigh, when Emma Foster had been added to his long list of victims.
(Amateur video footage)
KEVIN O’DONNELL, PRIEST: I’d just like to thank you very much, m’Lord, for coming with us again. Make it a Sunday afternoon next time. We like Sunday afternoons, don’t we, ’cause we can have a bit of a party afterwards.
We’d like the chance for you to meet with the Bishop when he comes.
GEORGE PELL: I look forward to many, many more years of work from Father O’Donnell in the Church here.
(Laughter and applause)
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: At Emma Foster’s confirmation in 1993, her picture was taken with Bishop Pell.
Three years later, in an adolescent psychiatric unit, she disclosed that Father O’Donnell had sexually assaulted her.
VIVIAN WALLER: The Fosters are just ordinary people. They live ordinary suburban lives. They were raising their children in the community. They didn’t ask for this. Um, this horror was visited upon them, not from out of the blue: this horror was visited upon them because the Archdiocese of Melbourne did not take earlier opportunities to investigate complaints that they had had against O’Donnell, to perhaps report matters to the police, ah, and to take O’Donnell out of contact with children.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Francis Sullivan is CEO of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, which speaks for the Church on matters related to the Royal Commission and child sexual abuse.
FRANCIS SULLIVAN: You heard the other day that the, uh, Pope said that about two per cent of priests were paedophiles. Well, we think that figure is pretty low for what we estimate it to be in Australia: around maybe, at least four per cent of clergy – that’s priests and religious – were child sex abusers.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: That’s a shocking percentage, isn’t it?
Francis Sullivan: Absolutely shocking. It’s very confronting, actually.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Equally confronting for many victims has been the experience of going through the Church’s internal complaints process in Victoria, known as the Melbourne Response, which was set up by George Pell when he became the city’s Archbishop in 1996.
The process has been highly controversial.
JUDY COURTIN, LAWYER AS DOCTORAL RESEARCHER:
They’re promised things such as: “We will get to the truth.” Ah, “We will address your needs. We will treat you with compassion and respect.” And, of course, once they arrive and by the time they’ve come through the process, ah, it is anything but compassion, love and Christianity.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Chrissie and Anthony Foster experienced this for themselves when Archbishop Pell visited Oakleigh and met them, shortly after setting up the Melbourne Response.
ANTHONY FOSTER: His whole thrust was that the Church wasn’t liable for the actions of their priests.
I was trying to get justice for our children at the time and he was trying to prevent scandal to the Church and trying to ch- save the Church’s money.
And we were in those two opposite corners. He was sitting in the big red chair. We were sitting on a hard wooden seat, being looked down upo- upon by this powerful man of the Church.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: When the Fosters told Archbishop Pell what had happened to their daughter Emma, they were astounded by his response.
ANTHONY FOSTER: Well, he said to us, “I hope you can substantiate that in court.” Now, it was a very strange comment because we had had some acceptance that this had happened from the Church already and yet here he is taking the, the legal tack.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: One thing the Fosters could immediately substantiate was the psychological damage that Father O’Donnell had inflicted on Emma.
It came in the form of a photo.
CHRISSIE FOSTER: He looked at a photo of Emma that we showed him where she’d cut her wrists. And he just looked at it and then said, “Oh, she’s changed, hasn’t she?”
We thought he’d have some sympathy, some empathy. This shocking photo of a, of anyone, of a child, anyone, with cut wrists, sitting there. She was crying. And… it didn’t have any effect whatsoever on him. It was quite astounding. It just stunned us.
(Footage of Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations, 27 May 2013)
GEORGIE CROZIER, MP, CHAIRWOMAN, PARLIAMENTARY INQUIRY: Please continue, Cardinal Pell.
GEORGE PELL: Now, I-I understand people feel deeply about this…
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Cardinal Pell gave his own explanation of what had occurred when he appeared at last year’s Victorian Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious organisations.
FRANK McGUIRE, COMMITTEE MEMBER: When Chrissie and Anthony Foster showed you a photograph after their daughter Emma had slashed her wrist, did you respond, and again I quote: “Mmm, she’s changed, hasn’t she”?
GEORGE PELL: Er, probably, but, er, let’s-let’s put this in context. Now we know that was a, uh, an attempted suicide. When you just look at a photo, suddenly, in front of you, ah, how do you recognise just from the photo that this was an attempted suicide? Now, whe-when you say, “Well, there is blood, ah, blood on the arms”: sure. But you’ve, er, you’ve got to understand that this was a, er… production of this photo was something sudden and I didn’t have a chance for a considered, er, response. Ah, I fully understood the enormity of the, the suffering.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The Fosters were one of the first families to go through Archbishop Pell’s Melbourne Response. It concluded with an offer of $50,000 to their daughter Emma and a letter of apology from Archbishop Pell.
But, as usual, it came with a catch. Enclosed was another letter from the Church’s lawyers, Corrs Chambers Westgarth.
ANTHONY FOSTER: Oh, that letter said that we should see the offer of $50,000 as an alternative to litigation that would be strenuously defended. So that was in the same envelope.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Which one more accurately depicted the Church’s real intent?
ANTHONY FOSTER: The letter from the-the lawyers, without doubt. Um, the Archbishop’s letter, ah, showed their position by offering a very small amount and the letter from the lawyers, I think, recognised that we had a much greater claim, but they were going to fight it tooth and nail – and fight it they did.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Chrissie and Anthony Foster decided to meet the Church head-on and take civil action.
ANTHONY FOSTER: It was the only way to get any sense of justice for our children and ourselves. It was as simple as that.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: As would happen later in the John Ellis case, the Church, through its lawyers, no longer admitted that Emma and Katie Foster had been abused by Father O’Donnell – even after the Archbishop’s apology for what he had done.
ANTHONY FOSTER: Firstly, they disputed that the abuse had occurred. And then they denied that, that our daughters had suffered from that abuse.
There’s a pattern there of playing hardball, of playing legal games, of in fact in both the Ellis case and our children’s cases of saying it didn’t even happen, and if it did you weren’t harmed by it. Ah, there is that pattern there and that pattern is an extension of what George Pell said to us in our meeting: “If you don’t like it, take it to court.”
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Nearly 10 years after starting their legal battle, the Fosters won a settlement of $750,000 plus costs – 10 times the maximum now payable under the Melbourne Response.
But under the terms of the agreement the Church required that this be kept confidential.
ANTHONY FOSTER: It was not an amount which I believe was just. But it gives a sense of what the Church is willing to pay in order to keep people silent and to ensure that the, the case doesn’t become public and that they don’t… and that they’re… what they’re willing to pay is not made public.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The Fosters achieved a substantial settlement by taking civil action against the Church.
But those victims who put their faith in the Church’s internal resolution process have ended up with a fraction of that amount in compensation.
Robin Henderson disclosed her childhood abuse to the Melbourne Response. Father Dominic Phillips was the priest who abused her when she attended St Joseph’s Primary School in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern.
ROBIN HENDERSON, CHILD ABUSE VICTIM: He’d sit me on his knee and was looking into my eyes with a magnifying glass and telling me that I had one eye bigger than the other and did I know?
And while he was distracting me like that he, his hands would wander and, ah, I was abused by him, um, manually, um… anally and, and vaginally.
And because he was a priest I thought that was… all right but I felt uncomfortable. And I told the nun about it and she said, “Oh, he’s just being fatherly because he knows you haven’t got a dad.”
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Father Phillips died in 1970 without ever being tried for the sex offences he is alleged to have committed.
In 2009 the Church accepted Robin Henderson’s story and referred her to the Melbourne Response’s Compensation Panel, which decides how much the Church’s victims will be paid.
When she visited the offices of the Church’s lawyers, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, to talk to the panel by video link, she secretly recorded the remarks made to her by the panel’s chair, David Curtain QC, about whether she needed a lawyer, paid for by the Church, before signing a deed of release.
Her recording is being played tonight for the first time.
(Excerpt of amateur audio recording)
DAVID CURTAIN, CHAIR, MELBOURNE RESPONSE COMPENSATION PANEL: Um, I’m David Curtain. May I call you Robin?
ROBIN HENDERSON: I’d prefer a title.
DAVID CURTAIN: Thank you, Ms Henderson, that’s fine.
You have discussed with me in emails the provision of a, uh, a lawyer to be provided by the Church. I-I see that myself as something that’s unnecessary because you’ll be asked to sign a release and the release is intended to release the Church from any claim.
So, if- if you work on the assumption that that was effective, then I-I myself struggle to see the point in having advice about that, unless that advice was to the effect that maybe the release isn’t effective.
Now, I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be requested but I, I hope that on analysis you can see the reason why we are of the view that it’s an unnecessary item.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: David Curtain has told Four Corners that he has never advised a victim not to seek legal advice before signing a release.
When Robin Henderson insisted that she wanted a lawyer, David Curtain agreed to ask the Church and her legal bill of $1,100 was later paid for her.
Robin Henderson was offered $30,000 in compensation which, reluctantly, she accepted.
ROBIN HENDERSON: I didn’t want to know any more after that. I was just depleted. I knew I had a good case. I knew I could’ve fought it if I wanted to but I just didn’t have the mental or the physical stamina to do it.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: It’s not just the victims of clergy sexual abuse who have suffered; it’s also those who have tried to protect the victims.
Graeme Sleeman is a former Catholic school principal who lost his career after fighting to get the Church to deal with a paedophile priest.
Tonight he is speaking out for the first time on national television.
GRAEME SLEEMAN, FMR PRINCIPAL, HOLY FAMILY SCHOOL, DOVETON: What did other priests know? What did the Archbishop know? They knew lots but sat on their hands.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In 1982 Graeme Sleeman was appointed principal of Holy Family School in Doveton, part of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.
It was a disadvantaged community and history now shows it was also a town that was cursed with a succession of four paedophile priests between 1972 and 1997.
The offending priests were Father Thomas O’Keeffe, Father Wilfred Baker, Father Victor Rubeo and Father Peter Searson.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: This was a community who, that was perceived as low socio-economics, poorly educated, wouldn’t have the power or the tenacity or the willpower to complain to the, to the authorities. So if we’ve got a problem, where do we send it? Would we send it to Toorak? I don’t think so.
FRANCIS SULLIVAN: Doveton appears to be just a tragic example of the maladministration of the Catholic Church during that period and, um, people rightly should be enraged.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Graeme Sleeman contends that, in the case of Father Searson, the actions of the Church go well beyond maladministration.
For 13 years after Father Searson arrived as parish priest in Doveton parents, teachers and children reported that he was a child abuser.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: You could almost call it a fetish that he had about g- having children go to confession to him. And they’d have to sit by him and kneel at him, and they were the complaints that children c- brought to me about him and his behaviour.
This particular day he had confession and this young girl came screaming out of the church. And she was brought to me by her teacher and she was inconsolable. And she had been interfered with by Searson in the confessional.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In 1986, four years after his appointment as principal, Graeme Sleeman resigned to draw attention to what was happening.
But his letter of resignation, he says, was censored by a church official in the Catholic Education Office.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: I alleged that he had interfered with young girls at the school and he had, ah, stolen money and that he, ah, terrorised young boys.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: And were you asked to take that out of your resignation letter?
GRAEME SLEEMAN: I was ask- he said I could not say that. I didn’t have the proof.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In Doveton, Graeme Sleeman’s departure caused uproar, with parents at the school demanding that Father Searson be dismissed. But no action was taken against him by the Church and Searson himself remained unmoved.
“I have not been approached by either parents or teachers concerning any allegations. There is absolutely no truth or substance to them,” he insisted. “I’d take an oath on that to anyone.”
From then on, it was all downhill for Graeme Sleeman and his wife Jenny, who also resigned from her job as a teacher at the school.
To this day, neither of them have ever been given another job in Catholic education.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: Oh, we took a massive, uh, financial, uh, beating over all this. We lost everything and the only thing I’ve got left is, is my wife and my children.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: And your integrity?
GRAEME SLEEMAN: I hope I’ve got my integrity. I hope I have that and that’s the thing that’s, that’s, I’ve been able – hopefully able to maintain.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: So, Carmel, um, we’re coming up to the school here on the right. How does it feel to be coming back after all those years?
CARMEL RAFFERTY, FMR TEACHER, HOLY FAMILY SCHOOL, DOVETON: Bit emotional, but you people are telling the story.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: It really was a-a-a very traumatic experience for you, wasn’t it?
CARMEL RAFFERTY: Yeah, most definitely. It coloured my life ever since.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: One year after Graeme Sleeman left Holy Family School, Carmel Rafferty arrived to take up a teaching post.
From the start, she too was concerned about Father Searson. Teachers told her that the children needed protection from him. And then she heard it from the children themselves.
CARMEL RAFFERTY: They were very loud and voluble, very upset. And they wanted protection from the priest. And I said, “What is your concern?”
“We don’t want to serve on the altar.” So I asked them why they didn’t- what was the worst that could happen if they did s- serve on the altar? And they said, “It’s because of the way he touches us.”
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In 1990 Bishop Pell, who had met a deputation of concerned teachers the year before, went to Doveton to consecrate Father Searson’s new church.
“Our aim is to bring people back to God,” Father Searson announced.
Later, the teachers became so desperate that they sent a second deputation to Bishop Pell.
CARMEL RAFFERTY: And it came to a head when the priest was going into the boys’ toilets several times a day. And we more or less said, “That’s it.” And the principal authorised the three Year 5/6 teachers to go in a deputation to Pell at the time.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The teachers asked Bishop Pell to remove Father Searson – but it didn’t happen.
Cardinal Pell defended his actions when he was challenged about this at last year’s Victorian inquiry.
(Footage of Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations, 27 May 2013)
GEORGE PELL: I met with at least two, on two occasions with groups of teachers from, er, Searson’s school. So I certainly didn’t do nothing; I certainly did.
I was sent back to Searson to tell him to… follow the protocols correctly, because people were saying he was, er, misbehaving. Now, he was furious at that. He denied e-everything and, er, anything.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: Bishop Pell’s instruction to Father Searson to follow the protocols correctly cut no ice with the priest. Not long afterwards, Carmel Rafferty heard a pupil’s disclosure in a sex education class.
CARMEL RAFFERTY: He rolled himself in a ball, sort of hide himself, and he’s saying, “Oh no. Oh, no. Father’s Searson’s got a big penis.” So we were very concerned.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: After fruitlessly trying to get the Church to act, Carmel Rafferty resigned in 1993. It would take the Church another four years to act.
In 1997, after the victim who had run screaming from the confessional came forward with her story, Father Searson was finally suspended as a parish priest by the new Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell.
When Archbishop Pell set up the Melbourne Response, he appointed Peter O’Callaghan QC as independent commissioner to investigate victims’ claims and decide if they were justified.
In 1997 he asked Mr O’Callaghan to investigate the Doveton scandal. Graeme Sleeman became a key witness.
Over several years, Mr O’Callaghan made regular, unconditional payments to Graeme Sleeman, amounting in all to $90,000. Mr O’Callaghan says the payments came out of his own pocket and he did this out of compassion for Mr Sleeman.
GRAEME SLEEMAN: And I contacted Mr O’Callaghan and said, “How do we survive?” And he said, “Well, I’ll support you.” And he then sent once a month equivalent to my weekly pay, which about a- a- a monthly’s payment was about $2,000.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: In October 2005 Graeme Sleeman received a settlement payment from the Church of $150,000, forwarded to him by the Church’s lawyers, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, but a condition of this payment was that he remain silent.
(To Graeme Sleeman) Was that money hush money?
GRAEME SLEEMAN: Well, I believe that it had to have been. Why else would they have done it? They did nothing to help me in the past and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, they come to it.
I believe now in strong reflection that it was, I was paid that sort of money to remain silent. My interpretation of the deed of release was: if I accepted the $150,000 I could neither say what I received and what took place for me to receive that. So all the information I had about Doveton and so forth and so on was to remain confidential.
(Footage of Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations, 27 May 2013)
FRANK McGUIRE: Just from your evidence, your… 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: I think, sir, that’s, er, an objectionable suggestion with no foundation in the truth. And I’ve, er… as I… No conviction was recorded for Searson on sexual misbehaviour. There might be victims.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: But tonight Four Corners can reveal that, in an internal Church hearing, the priest was found guilty of child sexual abuse.
This confidential draft report by Peter O’Callaghan, shown tonight for the first time, reveals that even before he went to Doveton Father Searson “achieved a regrettable record of suspected sexual abuse of children and considerable financial misappropriations.”
Mr O’Callaghan records that, in an internal hearing in 1997, he made a finding that “the parish priest had been guilty of sexual abuse.”
But astonishingly, Father Searson “successfully appealed to the Congregation in Rome”, which held that Mr O’Callaghan “did not have appropriate jurisdiction or procedure” to make the findings he did against Father Searson.
CARMEL RAFFERTY: The priest had rung Rome and spoken to a canon lawyer and claimed that he didn’t have to leave.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: There is now a third whistleblower who has come forward to reveal what went on inside the Archdiocese when the Doveton scandal was unfolding.
Helen Last was director of the Church’s Pastoral Response Office, answering to vicar general Denis Hart, now Archbishop of Melbourne, when she was contacted in 1997 by worried parishioners from Doveton.
HELEN LAST, FMR DIRECTOR, PASTORAL RESPONSE OFFICE: One of the major things that they were grappling with was: how could our Church have known that this priest was a paedophile – Father Searson and others before him – and not done anything to help us?
I decided in all conscience that I would go and spend the day with them. But I had been told in a phone message prior to going, by vicar general Hart, that I needn’t pay any attention to Doveton; I needn’t respond. I also received a letter from him that I recall instructing me not to go.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: She also received a letter from Archbishop Pell telling her that “the situation at Doveton was under control” and that “there remains no need for any pro-active measures by your office.”
Helen Last disobeyed Archbishop Pell’s instructions and went to Doveton. One month later, she was out of a job.
The day she spent there was an emotional one.
HELEN LAST: I spent the day with these people who cried, who raged, who shook their fists, who held each other and who were utterly lost in the situation and wanted me to point them towards a way of doing something about what had been visited upon them.
FRANCIS SULLIVAN: Well, Doveton, like every other community, every other Catholic parish or school community, deserves to see the Church today make atonement for the past.
QUENTIN MCDERMOTT: The sins of the fathers have lasting consequences for victims and their families, but the Church itself has often failed to recognise this.
In 1999 Katie Foster, who had been drinking, was hit by a car and remains profoundly disabled. In 2008 Emma Foster took her own life.
But when Father Searson died, 15 priests and a bishop from the Melbourne Archdiocese gathered to pay their respects.
These photos were taken by Chrissie and Anthony Foster. They want the Church to let us see the whole picture.
ANTHONY FOSTER: The Royal Commission here, to do its job properly, needs all the documents associated with all the sexual assault complaints and all the priests that have carried those out in Australia that it knows of.
We need all the documents to ensure that we see the whole picture. And of course, the Catholic Church does not want us to see the whole picture. That’s the problem.
KERRY O’BRIEN: I guess we can have some sense of what a victim loses after the kind of abuse we’ve now heard such a great deal about.
I wonder how the Church measures what it’s lost or, indeed, thrown away?
The Archbishop of Melbourne, Dennis Hart, David Curtin QC and Peter O’Callaghan QC all declined to be interviewed by Four Corners because, they said, they will soon be appearing at the Royal Commission hearings in Melbourne. Cardinal Pell has also declined to be interviewed.
Next week on Four Corners, the battle over the Great Barrier Reef: testing claims by scientists, tourism operators and environmentalists that the reef is at risk, as UNESCO considers whether to place it on the World Heritage Endanger List.
Until then, good night.
Child sex abuse royal commission: Child abuse claims in Victoria cost Catholic Church $34m, inquiry hears
Child sex abuse royal commission: Child abuse claims in Victoria cost Catholic Church $34m, inquiry hears
Child abuse claims in Victoria since 1996 have cost the Catholic Church more than $34 million, an inquiry has heard.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is investigating the church’s so-called Melbourne Response to allegations of child sexual abuse by its clergy.
The scheme was introduced by Cardinal Pell when he was Melbourne’s archbishop in 1996, and was a first of its kind.
It allowed anyone allegedly abused by priests or others under the authority of the archbishop to have what the church called “an independent commissioner” to investigate their claims and make findings.
Compensation from the scheme was originally capped at $50,000 before being lifted to $75,000, with the cap a subject of contention among victims and their advocates.
Counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness SC said data from the Archdiocese of Melbourne showed abuse claims had cost the church more than $34 million.
“The total of ex gratia payments made under the Melbourne Response for child sexual abuse claims and amounts paid for medical counselling and treatment amounted to $17.295 million,” Ms Furness said.
“The cost of administering the Melbourne Response was $17.011 million.”
She told the commission victims had received larger payments by going outside of Melbourne Response scheme.
“The average compensation payment amount paid is $36,100,” she said.
“(A total of) $3,187 for those claims settled within the response, $168,000 for those that began within the Melbourne Response but settled outside, and just short of $300,000 for those outside the Melbourne Response.
“Since the cap increased to $75,000, the total amount of compensation paid to 65 victims of child sexual abuse has been $3.3 million, the average compensation payment being just over $50,000.”
Ms Furness told the inquiry that ex gratia payments made under the Melbourne Response scheme did not constitute an admission of liability.
“In announcing the Melbourne Response, it was stated that the establishment of the compensation panel and the offer of ex-gratia compensation payments were not an admission of liability,” she said.
“The archbishop, the archdiocese and the church, in the document recording the Melbourne Response, did not accept that they had any legal obligation to make payments to complainants.”
The hearings were interrupted after lunch by a power outage in the area.
Couple whose daughter died pulled out of ‘Melbourne Response’
Christine Foster, the mother of victims of Catholic Church abuse, was the first witness to take the stand this morning.
Two of Christine and Anthony Foster’s three daughters were assaulted by a Catholic priest while in primary school. One subsequently committed suicide.
Ms Furness said Mrs Foster would give evidence that “Emma and Katie were abused by their parish priest, Father Kevin O’Donnell, when they were students at Sacred Heart primary school” and that the abuse continued in their early years at primary school and beyond.
“Neither Mrs Foster nor Anthony were aware of the abuse at the time it occurred,” she said.
Mrs Foster then gave harrowing details of the impact of O’Donnell’s sexual abuse of her two daughters.
She said Emma, who suffered from anorexia, and had at least 900 doctor, specialist and pathology visits, at least 75 outpatient psychology appointments, and more than 50 admissions to hospital, detox and rehabilitation clinics, before taking her own life in 2008.
Katie took to binge drinking to escape the memories of her abuse.
Mrs Foster said she was hit by a car after binge drinking in 1999 and now required 24-hour care.
Mrs Foster told the commission that church leaders appeared “stand-offish” and did not appear to want to listen to concerned parents at a meeting.
She said the family initially participated in the Melbourne Response scheme.
“Nothing about this process was transparent,” Ms Foster said.
They received an offer of $50,000 for Emma, which was then the maximum, which Emma accepted, although she did not sign the trust deed.
“We told Emma not to accept the offer as we knew this would end all her rights,” Mrs Foster said.
The Fosters later decided to pursue legal action against the Catholic Church, instead of continuing through the Melbourne Response scheme.
Mrs Foster said she was shocked to discover the defendants did not admit that Emma and Katie had been sexually abused.
They eventually reached an out-of-court settlement, of $750,000 plus costs, believed to be the largest compensation payout of its kind in Australia.
Six months after Emma’s death, the Fosters were accused of “dwelling crankily on old wounds”.
Mrs Foster told the commission she believed they settled for an amount of money that was far less than what their children were entitled to.
She and her husband wanted the cap on payments removed and all past claims reviewed.
One priest the subject of 19pc of compensation claims
The commission heard O’Donnell’s actions accounted for almost a fifth (19 per cent) of all compensation paid by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
The archdiocese paid people who were abused by O’Donnell $1,886,100 through the Melbourne Response scheme, up to March this year, the commission was told.
Other complaints about O’Donnell, who was a parish priest in Oakleigh, have been settled outside the scheme.
The total amount of compensation and counselling costs paid in relation to O’Donnell is $2,934,390.
The two institutions subject to the largest number of complaints are the Sacred Heart Primary School and the Sacred Heart Parish in Oakleigh.
Church asked me to sign away rights: witness
The commission also heard that Melbourne priest, Father Victor Rubeo, targetted two generations of one family.
Paul Hersbach gave evidence about the behaviour of Rubeo, who lived at times with him and his family.
He told the commission that the abuse started when he was about seven years old, when Rubeo would come into his bedroom and sit on the bed, or would watch him and his brother when they were naked in the bath.
He told the commission that Rubeo would shower him and his brother with gifts, including computers, a CD player and a go-kart.
Mr Hersbach testified that Rubeo had his own room at the Hersbach home at one stage and was involved in every aspect of the family’s lives – he opened the mail, paid the bills and bought groceries
“I thought it was normal,” he told the court.
Mr Hersbach testified that his father, Tony Hersbach, was abused decades earlier when he was an altar boy.
After his father made a complaint about his own abuse, Mr Hersbach said, Rubeo asked him to repay the $10,000 he given the family for the house.
In 1996 Rubeo pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting Mr Hersbach’s father and uncle.
Fresh charges were laid in 2010, but Rubeo died on the day he was due in court for his committal in 2011.
Paul Hersbach met with Peter O’Callaghan QC, a commissioner under the Melbourne response scheme, after disclosing his own abuse in 2006.
He said Mr O’Callaghan told him he could go to the police if he wanted, but based on what Mr Hersbach had told him, he did not think anything would happen.
Mr Hersbach did not approach the police.
He later received a compensation offer of $17,500.
“The Catholic Church has taken so much from me,” Mr Hersbach said.
“It had complete and utter control of my life.”
He said the irony was that just as he took action against the church, but was then asked to sign away his rights to take further action against them as part of the deed of settlement in which he received $17,500 in compensation.
Melbourne Response upheld 326 complaints since 1996
Ms Furness said Melbourne Archdiocese data revealed that 351 complaints had been made under the Melbourne Response scheme since it began in 1996.
“Of these complaints, 326 were upheld by an independent commissioner, nine were not upheld and 16 are currently defined as being undetermined,” she said.
“The undetermined claims are either dormant, ongoing, the complainant is deceased, or the complainant is described as considering civil proceedings.”
Of the 326 upheld complaints, the data showed 80 per cent occurred between 1950 and 1980 inclusive, 14 per cent occurred between 1981 and 1990, and 2 per cent related to alleged incidents between 1991 and 2006, Ms Furness said.
The remaining 4 per cent related to incidents between 1937 and 1949, she said.
She said 77 individuals had been named as the subject of one or more of the upheld complaints.
“Of these, just over half, 42, are known by the archbishop to be dead,” she said.
She said 84 per cent of complaints heard by the Melbourne Response scheme were about priests.
Child sex abuse royal commission: Catholic priest abused two generations of boys in the same family, inquiry hears
Child sex abuse royal commission: Catholic priest abused two generations of boys in the same family, inquiry hears
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard a devastating account of how a Catholic priest preyed on two generations of boys in the same family.
Tony Hersbach and his twin brother Will were molested by Father Victor Rubeo in Melbourne in the 1960s.
The priest then abused Tony’s two sons, Paul and Adam, in the 1980s.
Paul Hersbach gave evidence to the commission on Monday, and he and his father gave an exclusive interview to the ABC’s 7.30 program about how the domineering and charismatic priest managed to take hold and control their family.
“He was like a father, but like an incestuous father, so he had this real dark, secret side,” Tony told 7.30.
“And you know, in our family life, he was able to do whatever he wanted to. He basically took over.”
Paul said: “We called him Grandpa, which… bothers me a lot.
“And he was just there … he involved himself, uninvited, and he took over.
“He preyed upon my father. And our family. And no-one asked him. So we never did anything to keep him in our life.”
The Hersbach family immigrated to Melbourne in 1955 when Tony, now 61, was two years old.
The family were poor and lived in a housing commission home in working class Altona.
Father Rubeo lived across the road.
“He came around trying to recruit altar boys,” Tony said.
“And I put my hand up and said yeah, I’d be an altar boy. I was about nine, 10 years old.”
Tony and his twin brother Will served as altar boys for several years.
Father Rubeo would ply the boys with gifts and help them with their homework, but soon the attention became more sinister.
“He would have these rituals almost where he would make me dinner as if he was taking me out on a date,” Tony said.
“I even remember him taking me to really fancy restaurants.He would take me there sometimes on a Saturday night. [We would] have this marvellous dinner – just he and I together.
“And then he would bring me home and he would … he’d basically have sex.
“It was always premeditated. It always involved him plying me with lots of alcohol. We’d have shots of Drambuie, fine wine, all the rest of it.
“It’s not just the actual sexual abuse, it’s all of the grooming and the way that it’s done.
“I hated it. I hated it. I hated every minute of it. But I never said anything or could do anything because he had this … such a hold over me.”
Tony’s father was an aggressive alcoholic, and the priest took over the father role.
“I was someone who needed a father … and I wish I could’ve told him all that time ago to leave me alone,” Tony said.
Priest began abusing Tony’s children
But Father Rubeo did not leave Tony or his family alone.
The priest bought Tony his first car, and when Tony married his wife Lou, Father Rubeo put a deposit into their bank account for their first home.
“And it would just turn up, unannounced, stuff you didn’t want, you didn’t ask for, it just happened,” Tony said.
The abuse remained his darkest secret. He never told his twin brother, he never told his wife.
And all the while, Father Rubeo was everywhere – family holidays, christenings, and birthdays.
“He used to take all sorts of liberties. He would open our mail. He would sometimes walk in unannounced to our bedroom,” Tony said.
Tony’s wife Lou says the priest often babysat their children.
“He had full care of them, from bathing them to changing their nappies, to dressing them, the taking them to school, to picking them up, to taking them on outings,” Mrs Hersbach said.
“He was with us on holidays – he was like their surrogate grandfather.”
The family even stayed for a time in the presbytery of the church where Father Rubeo was parish priest.
That is where Father Rubeo started on the next generation of Hersbachs – turning his attention to Paul Hersbach and his older brother Adam.
“He would invite himself into my bedroom and my brother’s bedroom,” Paul told 7.30.
“He would come into the bathroom – while we were in there, bathing.
“He would also invite us and allow us to come into his bathroom when he was either showering or shaving. And times then I’d see him masturbate.”
Tony feels terrible about this now.
“The acknowledgement of the fact that as a father, I didn’t protect my children. And that’s something that I have to take responsibility for,” he said.
“There was a lot of reasons for that.
“He did have enormous control over me because of what he did to me.”
By the early 1990s and in his 40s, Tony had a breakdown and finally admitted to his wife what had happened.
He also told the Church about Father Rubeo’s crimes.
“I remember the date very clearly. Lou and I went together to see Vicar General Cudmore. It was the 10th of August 1994,” Tony said.
Father Rubeo was then parish priest at St Joseph’s Boronia in Melbourne’s outer east – a church with a school attached and attended by young families.
Years later, after getting access to Vicar General Cudmore’s notes, Tony discovered that the Church did nothing.
“Cudmore made some notes which showed that he [Father Rubeo] offered to resign and it wasn’t accepted,” Tony said.
“He was left in his parish for a further two years.”
Tony learned brother Will was also a victim of Rubeo
In 1996, the police contacted Tony and his brother Will to tell them Father Rubeo had confessed to abusing them.
That was when Tony learned that for all those years earlier, his brother had also been a victim.
Neither twin had told the other.
“He was charged with two counts of indecent assault – one against my brother and one against me. And he was given a good behaviour bond. With no conviction,” Tony said.
In 2004, Tony’s son dropped a bombshell. Paul admitted he too was a victim of Father Rubeo.
His parents were devastated.
“[I felt] immense guilt. Immense shame. Great regret,” Mrs Hersbach said.
“I felt inadequate as a mum.
“I can’t begin to re-step those years and change things and I wish I could.
“I know a lot has been taken from the kids, not just through Paul’s abuse and Tony’s abuse, but through the way the man was in our life.
“I know our family was good, it was good, but it could have been so, so much better.”
In 2010, the Hersbach family again went to the police and Father Rubeo was charged with a further 30 offences.
He died the day he was due to face court.
The Hersbachs are now rebuilding their lives.
Their family photo album is littered with gaps where the photos of Father Rubeo have been taken out and burned.
Royal commission hears evidence about Melbourne Response
Paul gave evidence to the child sex abuse royal commission on Monday, where he outlined the inadequacy of the Catholic Church’s Melbourne Response.
When he was interviewed by the Catholic Church’s independent commissioner, Peter O’Callaghan, about Father Rubeo’s abuse, he says Mr O’Callaghan told him it was unlikely the police would press charges because his case was too weak.
Both Paul and Tony, once dedicated Catholics, have lost their faith.
Now they want the Church to be called to account.
“Society has stepped in and said ‘this is not OK, we want to do something about it’,” Paul said.
“And what I want to come from it, apart from the Catholic Church having to redress what wrongs they’ve done, is for people, victims – any type of victims – to understand that you can break the cycle.”
As for his relationship with his father, Paul holds absolutely no malice and does not blame him for the abuse he suffered.
He knows what it is like to be a victim of Father Rubeo and why the priest had such a powerful hold on Tony.
“I’m very proud of him for what he did,” Paul said.
“To come out after 30 or 40 years takes an immense amount of courage – for anyone to come out in these circumstances takes an immense amount of courage.
“The crimes were committed by Rubeo. Not my father.”
The price of battling paedophilia
September 17, 2012
Former teacher Graeme Sleeman lost his career, health and financial security when he took a stand against a sexually abusive priest in Doveton.
GRAEME Sleeman knew Peter Searson was trouble even before Searson arrived as parish priest of Doveton in 1984. Searson liked to dress in military fatigues, often carried a revolver, and had a bad reputation when it came to money – and sexually abusing children.
The two locked horns immediately when Sleeman, principal of the Holy Family school, told the priest he knew of his reputation and would be watching him, and Searson replied that as priest he was the boss. Their main battleground was bizarre: the sacred Catholic sacrament of confession, where Searson could get the children alone and unsupervised.
“I was concerned about his addiction to confession,” Sleema n recalls.
“Sometimes he would get children to sit on his lap, or kneel between his legs.” Later he would help a church investigation into two sexual assaults during confession.
Sleeman was a respected educator and a devout Catholic. The latter cost him his career, his health and economic security for his family, as he sought to protect the children under his charge from a predatory priest while also trying to protect the good name of the church.
When Sleeman resigned as principal in 1986 in a vain bid to force the church and Catholic Education Office (CEO) to act against Searson, he was besieged by media wanting to know about the priest’s behaviour. But he stayed silent, even in later job interviews, when his refusal to explain his departure worked against him.
Now, after 25 years, Graeme Sleeman, 63, is breaking his silence. Previously he feared a backlash against his family, and that he would not be believed. Now living in Queensland, he has decided to talk because ”the climate is right”.
He is still angry that despite repeated pleas to the church hierarchy, including to then archbishop Frank Little, and to the CEO to remove Searson – even providing proof he had stolen $40,000 from school funds – nothing was done.
Sleeman says when the CEO asked Searson about the money, the priest said it was ”a mistake” and he would repay it, though he never did.
Sleeman is also angry that he had to carry out this fight alone, with no support or counselling from the CEO.
Carmel Rafferty, a later teacher at Holy Family who stood against Searson, felt similarly abandoned.
”I felt bullied, abused, traumatised, humiliated and isolated by the principal and CEO staff,” she says.
Worse still, Searson was the last in a line of six sexual abusers – some violent – who arrived in Doveton parish after it was created in 1962: the first four were parish priests at the Holy Family church, plus an assistant and a locum – a remarkable misfortune for a parish regarded as one of the most disadvantaged in Melbourne.
Sleeman, a big man who played semi-professional football, started as a Salesian novitiate at the Rupertswood school in Sunbury, where several serial abusers were based.
He left the order but later, feeling he had unfinished business with the church, became a seminarian, lasting only nine months because he didn’t “fit the tea party conception” of priesthood and was uneasy about the homosexual activity of other seminarians there.
He became a bush footballer and principal at St Mary’s in Sale. He arrived at Doveton in 1982, parachuted in by the CEO as a trouble shooter “because the Presentation nuns had walked out that morning after upheavals with the parish priest”.
Sleeman didn’t know that the priest, Victor Rubeo, was a serial abuser of boys and girls, but was aware Rubeo had affairs with women. Sleeman had a key to the priest’s home, and once caught him in flagrante.
One day in 1984, Rubeo approached Sleeman “absolutely beside himself, in tears, in trouble with one of his women”. Sleeman arranged for the priest to take sick leave, and helped him do a midnight flit to Malvern. Another abuser, Father Regis Smith – a female victim of whom was later paid out by the church – became interim priest at Doveton.
”I made a number of visits to [Archbishop] Frank Little and [Vicar-General] Peter Connors, asking them to send a pastorally minded priest,” Sleeman says. ”They appointed Peter Searson. I was on a fishing trip and saw it in The Advocate [a Catholic newspaper] and nearly had a heart attack.”
From the start, Sleeman made sure at least one teacher was in the church when Searson took children for confession. He did not know what Searson later conceded to a reporter, that the priest arrived from Sunbury banned from being alone with children in the confessional.
One day a teacher brought him a nine-year-old girl who had rushed sobbing from the confessional. More than a decade later, she received compensation from the archdiocese for a serious sexual assault. Another pupil, also later compensated, told her mother Searson had interfered with her. Carmel Rafferty says police told her Searson was brilliant at persuading parents not to make formal complaints.
Sleeman says the education office cover-up began with making teachers doubt what they were told – “what have you really seen, what evidence have you got?” “But they also kept telling us to report incidents. So we became the policeman, and they would go to the priest and say ‘we’ve had another complaint’, so the perpetrator was always getting a heads up,” Sleeman says.
At one point, he found that Searson had a 14-year-old Indian girl living with him alone in the Holy Family presbytery because of her family problems. Sleeman warned him but Searson ignored it, so Sleeman told the CEO who ”counselled” Searson. Nothing changed.
“Searson got great strength because he got away with it, and he upped the ante about taking kids to the confessional. So we put in place a whole lot of things to guard against him,” Sleeman says. ”There were always at least two staff inside the church, and we put in place a timetable for confession, but he ignored it. If he saw my car wasn’t there he’d rush over to the school and grab a group [of children].”
Despite this, Holy Family was thriving. It was a finalist in Victorian school awards, and educators came from around the country and overseas to study Sleeman’s ideas.
In the end, becoming increasingly volatile himself – on one occasion he threatened to “rearrange” Searson’s face – Sleeman decided he would have to resign. He thought it would create such waves that the church and CEO would have to act. Parents were up in arms and demanded Searson’s removal. But Searson stayed and, apart from a short stint coaching football in Chadstone, Sleeman never worked in Catholic education again. “I was suicidal. I was treated like I had leprosy.”
He went to interview after interview, in Victoria and Queensland, and things would go well until he was asked why he left Doveton. He would just say “personal reasons”, as advised by the education office. After he noticed a paper on a desk at an interview, he became convinced that the CEO was undermining him, telling schools “he’s a great educator and works harder than anyone, but you’ll never be able to control him”.
The Sleemans bought a general store in Longford, then Graeme got a job driving horse semi-trailers, but his physical and mental health declined. In 1998 he had a breakdown, and was referred to Melbourne’s Independent Commissioner into Sex Abuse, Peter O’Callaghan, QC.
For several years, O’Callaghan paid expenses and “wages” totalling $90,000 for both Sleeman and his wife out of his own pocket and without the approval of the Melbourne archdiocese.
He did this until the church finally paid Sleeman $150,000, a sum Sleeman says was not even close to what he had lost in income, superannuation and lost opportunities. “My family was totally dislocated, and we didn’t know where the next meal was coming from,” he says.
Carmel Rafferty joined Holy Family school the year after Graeme Sleeman left. But she wasn’t forced into the front line until she started teaching grades 5 and 6 in 1992.
“I lost my job over it, and during the process I couldn’t make children safe.”
She says the school’s staff had a good idea of what was going on with Searson. Altar boys didn’t want to serve; asked why, they said “because of the way he touches us”. One boy became upset during a sex education class when a teacher mentioned erections – he began rolling on the floor saying, ”Oh no, Father’s got a big penis”.
In 1991, concerned at the way Searson was loitering around the boys’ toilets, the staff sent a deputation of three teachers to the regional bishop, George Pell, now Archbishop of Sydney. Nothing was done.
Rafferty says that over time many people approached her about Searson: children seeking safety, different concerned parents, a police liaison officer who wanted her to ask Vicar General Gerald Cudmore to remove Searson (she did, in vain), and a worker at Doveton Hallam Health Centre after an incident in which Searson picked up a girl in his car.
Her relationship with Searson deteriorated. The CEO wanted to be told about Searson, but would tell her, ”Don’t say anything, it’s being handled”. Instead, she says, she was pressured out of her teaching career and livelihood. She resigned in 1993.
”This has wrecked my life, basically.” She had to move house because she couldn’t pay the mortgage, and spent six years working in a call centre. ”I felt my soul was dying.”
For 13 years she sought compensation for wrongful dismissal, and was finally given a compensation for ”hardship and distress”.
Searson’s reign finally ended in 1997 when he was charged with the physical (not sexual) assault of two altar boys and stood down.
The Age put several questions to the Catholic Archdiocese and CEO about why they did not act against Searson despite receiving complaint after complaint.
Independent Commissioner Peter O’Callaghan noted in 2004 how surprised he was that Searson was left so long as a parish priest, “producing ill will, frustration and concern to school and parish staff, fellow priests and parishioners”.
A spokesman for the archdiocese replied that Searson was an eccentric and difficult person, but until a formal complaint in 1997 there was no evidence on which the church could act.
“Searson’s conduct was examined from time to time, but nothing firm could be established under the processes that were then in place.”
Searson was warned about behavioural issues, but the church did not know of his sexual misconduct.
The archdiocese says it would have acted had it known about the Indian girl living with Searson, and when it found out about his gun it demanded he surrender it to police.
Similarly, the CEO says it would have acted had it known about the stolen $40,000.
Sleeman says that given he informed authorities about both episodes, he finds this ignorance hard to explain.
Sleeman, like many victims, suspects that the archdiocese did not find evidence because it was disinclined to look too hard. At the least, they knew he was not the pastorally sensitive priest Holy Family needed.
Similarly, the CEO says it gave “regular and considerable support” to Sleeman, but did not identify a single example. Nor could Sleeman.
Both Graeme Sleeman and Carmel Rafferty plan to make submissions to the inquiry into the church’s handling of sex abuse now being conducted by a parliamentary committee. Submissions close on September 21.
Secret Catholic Church report found parish priest Peter Searson was guilty of child sex abuse, despite no charges ever being laid against him
Secret Catholic Church report found parish priest Peter Searson was guilty of child sex abuse, despite no charges ever being laid against him
A secret Catholic Church report concluded a parish priest was guilty of child sexual abuse, despite no charges ever being laid against him.
The internal report of a confidential 1997 investigation into Father Peter Searson, of the outer-Melbourne parish of Doveton, made a finding that “the parish priest had been guilty of sexual abuse”, Four Corners has revealed.
In his evidence to last year’s Victorian inquiry into child sexual abuse, Cardinal George Pell rejected suggestions of a cover-up of Father Searson’s crimes, stating: “No conviction was recorded for Searson on sexual misbehaviour. There might be victims. He was convicted for cruelty. But speaking more generally, I totally reject the suggestion.”
Cardinal Pell made no reference to the inquiry about the internal hearing into Father Searson which had taken place in 1997, or the finding that the parish priest had sexually abused two girls.
Cardinal Pell was regional bishop in the early 1990s when allegations were being made about Father Searson in Doveton.
He told the Victorian inquiry that, at the time, “I certainly did not do nothing; I certainly did. I was sent back to Searson to tell him to follow the protocols correctly, because people were saying he was misbehaving. He was furious at that … He denied everything and anything.”
Father Searson was eventually removed from the Doveton Parish and charged by police for the physical assault of a young boy attending the Holy Family School. He received a suspended sentence.
Father Searson died in 2009.
He was the last of four paedophile priests who had headed the Doveton Parish for an unbroken span of 25 years from 1972 to 1997.
The others were Father Thomas O’Keefe, Father Wilfred Baker, and Father Victor Rubeo.
Their criminal acts over a quarter of a century damaged the lives of countless young children in the Doveton area, and other parishes in which they worked.
Father O’Keefe died in the 1980s, but the church has since apologised to some of his child victims.
Father Rubeo died in December 2011, the day he was due to front a Melbourne court on 30 child sex abuse charges, while Father Baker died in February this year, days before his trial over the sexual abuse of eight boys.
The revelation the Church knew about Father Searson’s crimes is contained in the secret report written by the church’s Independent Commissioner into Sexual Abuse, Peter O’Callaghan QC.
Mr O’Callaghan was appointed in 1997 by George Pell, the then-Archbishop of Melbourne, to investigate the allegations from teachers, parents and others, surfacing about the priest.
Archbishop Pell “urged people not to rush to judgement” and said it was “essential to keep an open mind”.
However, the Melbourne Archdiocese has never released the results of Mr O’Callaghan’s inquiries.
Mr O’Callaghan’s confidential report says that, even before he was appointed parish priest in Doveton in 1984, Father Searson had “achieved a regrettable record of suspected sexual abuse of children, and considerable financial misappropriations”.
This record stretches back to other parishes over several decades.
The report records the many complaints that were made by teachers at Holy Family School, in Doveton, to the Catholic Education Office, about the priest’s activities.
Two of those teachers, the former school principal Graeme Sleeman and another former teacher, Carmel Rafferty, were interviewed on Monday night’s Four Corners program.
Mr O’Callaghan writes in his report that in May 1993, the Director of Education wrote to the Vicar General at the Melbourne Archdiocese, expressing concerns about the safety of the pupils in the school, and the “apparent vulnerability of the Archbishop and the Archdiocese in such matters and advised that legal advice had been sought”.
Father Searson was placed on administrative leave and not sacked by the church when the assault charges were laid.
Mr O’Callaghan’s secret report reveals that Father Searson had “successfully appealed to the Congregation in Rome, which held that the Commission did not have appropriate jurisdiction or procedure to make the findings”.
“Notwithstanding, the Parish Priest remains a retired Priest with no permission to exercise any priestly faculties,” the report said.