IN 1996, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to prosecute a senior Hunter Catholic priest, Monsignor Patrick Cotter, for failing to report the crimes of paedophile priest Vince Ryan.
Cotter’s age was a factor, but the prosecution was not in the public interest, the DPP advised.
Ryan was convicted and jailed for offences against more than 30 young boys.
Cotter’s failure to report Ryan to police in the mid 1970s – when he ‘‘decided to say nothing’’ and moved Ryan out of the Hunter for a year, only to move him back again to sexually assault children for another 20 years – was not revealed until 2007, by the Newcastle Herald.
Cotter was dead by then.
The church gave him a big send-off.
The truth was hidden because settlements paid to Ryan’s victims were not made public.
Ryan was disgraced, but Cotter’s ‘‘good name’’ was protected and the church’s concealment of Ryan’s crimes was not known.
The DPP’s decision in 1996 was an opportunity missed, a point made by Troy Grant, the police officer who charged Ryan, and wanted to charge Cotter.
That ‘‘public interest’’ decision all those years ago still rankles.
In Australia today we still haven’t recorded a conviction against anyone in the Catholic church, or any church as far as I’m aware, for concealing the crimes of a paedophile, although the Hunter has recorded the first two such charges against clergy.
Toronto priest Tom Brennan died last year before the case against him could be heard, although he was already convicted for falsely stating he had not been told about offending by another priest.
Conceal charges against another Hunter priest are now before Newcastle Local Court.
Last week the DPP advised police against charging a Catholic Brother, Anthony Whelan, for sacking a teacher in 1979, but failing to report to police the child sex allegations that prompted the sacking.
It was not in the public interest to charge Brother Whelan with the old charge of misprision of a felony – failing to disclose a serious crime – despite an apparent prima facie case against him, the DPP told police.
Reasons included Brother Whelan’s lack of criminal history, the length of time since the allegations were raised with him by four students and the likely ‘‘negligible penalty’’ if there was a conviction.
Brother Whelan did not dispute the allegations were raised, and he sacked the teacher.
The DPP’s decision is worth considering, particularly in light of statements by a Catholic bishop to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry this week.
After extraordinary evidence about how the church moved notorious paedophile priests for years after their offending became known, former Ballarat Bishop Peter Connors told the inquiry his predecessor made ‘‘terrible errors’’ and showed ‘‘great naivety’’ by moving two notorious priests despite knowing they were child sex offenders.
Challenged by deputy chairman Frank McGuire, who said the church had been motivated by money and the desire to prevent scandal for the organisation, Bishop Connors replied that, ‘‘Bishops have taken responsibility for mistakes of the past’’.
The bishop later agreed that the church had ‘‘effectively facilitated child sex offences’’ by leaving known offenders in place.
For years in Australia, thousands of decisions have been made by churches, in children’s homes, in schools, by public authorities, by institutions, in legal firms, and by governments on the issue of child sex abuse, which have kept the reality of it largely hidden.
A big percentage of them were probably made with the best intentions.
In the public interest.
But those thousands of decisions have allowed church leaders to use words like ‘‘errors’’, ‘‘mistakes’’ and ‘‘naivety’’ for all that time, instead of the one word that should have been used. Crimes. And without intending to, we’ve all been part of that.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.