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.
Sex abuse royal commission: Angry victim reveals details of Pell letter apologising for suffering at hands of ‘creepy’ paedophile priest
Sex abuse royal commission: Angry victim reveals details of Pell letter apologising for suffering at hands of ‘creepy’ paedophile priest
By Louise Milligan and Andy Burns
From the Link: Sex abuse royal commission: Angry victim reveals details of Pell letter apologising for suffering at hands of ‘creepy’ paedophile priest
A victim of notorious paedophile priest Peter Searson has revealed the contents of a letter of apology to her from former archbishop George Pell about her abuse.
The letter paints a different picture to the evidence given by Cardinal Pell to a Victorian inquiry in 2013.
Julie Stewart gave evidence on Wednesday morning to the royal commission into child sex abuse about her treatment at the hands of Father Peter Searson at the Doveton Holy Family Parish in outer Melbourne in the 1980s.
The letter, signed by the then-archbishop Pell and written in 1998, accepts that Ms Stewart was abused.
“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,” it says.
But, while being questioned in 2013 by Victorian MP Frank McGuire, Cardinal Pell defended his actions in relation to Searson.
The transcript of his evidence reads: “…No conviction was recorded for Searson for sexual misbehaviour – there might be victims…”
Ms Stewart told 7.30 she was deeply angered by the statement that “there might be victims”, so decided to tell her story to the royal commission for the first time.
“Oh, I was absolutely so angry. And I thought, ‘let’s get ’em’,” she said.
When asked by 7.30 what she thought of Cardinal Pell, she answered: “Not very much.”
Ms Stewart was abused by Searson in 1984 and 1985 at Holy Family when she was nine and 10 years old. The school was a hot spot for a succession of paedophile priests through the 1970s and 1980s.
Cardinal Pell, who has engaged personal legal representation for this royal commission, will reserve the right to cross-examine witnesses, including victims of paedophile clergy, despite a Church decision not to do so.
Evidence will also be heard this week from the principal of the Holy Family School at the time, Graeme Sleeman, who quit in disgust after he says the parish was left unprotected from Searson by the Catholic Church.
“When Searson was sent to me, priests, people, contacted me at the school to say ‘mate, you are getting this crazy guy’,” Mr Sleeman told 730.
“In all my life, I have never been frightened of anyone, but Peter Searson scared me. Because he was a really, really creepy guy.”
The former principal, whose career was left in ruins following Searson’s arrrival at the school, said the Catholic Education Office received numerous complaints about the priest but ignored them.
“They said ‘we’ve passed it on’. And they kept constantly telling me, ‘that is not concrete evidence, we need concrete evidence’. I don’t know how much more concrete evidence we could give them,” Mr Sleeman said.
The commission has received in evidence dozens of letters from the time Mr Sleeman left the school from concerned parents and parishioners who wanted Searson out.
Mr Sleeman told 7.30 the Church failed the students of Holy Family School.
“I signed a contract to be a principal at that school which said I would uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church and I would provide a safe environment for children. And the diocese really did not assist me in providing a safe environment for any of the students in that school,” he said.
The Catholic Church substantiated four complaints of child sexual abuse against Searson. He was also convicted in 1997 of hitting an altar boy. He died in 2009.
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.