MAITLAND-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright has issued an ‘‘unreserved apology’’ to the victims of child sexual abuse by priests, and acknowledged that some members of the church ‘‘failed to act’’ in protecting them from these ‘‘predators’’.
Bishop Wright was allowed to make an opening address to Monday’s hearing of the Special Commission of Inquiry after opening statements from Commissioner Margaret Cunneen and counsel assisting, Julia Lonergan.
The inquiry switched its attention on Monday to what the church knew, and did or didn’t do with allegations concerning the abuse inflicted by disgraced priests Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher. It is also exploring whether the church hindered or obstructed police investigations or conspired to cover up illegal activities.
In an extraordinary opening address, Ms Lonergan indicated that the inquiry had received written documents from the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese which suggests that senior church clergy not only knew about the ‘‘abhorrent’’ sexual abuse by Denis McAlinden, they went to great lengths to cover it up.
Ms Cunneen described the sexual abuse of children as ‘‘abhorrent’’.
‘‘It has a devastating and long-lasting effect on victims and their families, and on the community generally,’’ she said.
‘‘It should not be tolerated or condoned by any modern society.
‘‘It can be very difficult for children to speak out about sexual abuse. When they do, the collective responsibility to take action weighs heavily on all. The sexual abuse of children should no longer be a crime for which the conspiracy of silence continues to the grave.
‘‘Child sexual abuse by a priest involves a gross breach of trust of the highest magnitude. It breaches the trust of victims and their families in a manner that is reprehensible and may cause irreparable harm.’’
In her opening statement, Ms Lonergan said the church, and in particular the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, has been co-operative with the inquiry.
Bishop Wright used his address to acknowledge that ‘‘these sexual predators’’ used their positions of trust to not only gain access to their child victims, but to also cover up their actions.
‘‘I acknowledge that the children so abused sometimes suffered further hurt when they were not believed because the offender was a priest,’’ Bishop Wright said.
‘‘I acknowledge that, when matters were reported, church authorities sometimes failed to act, or to act effectively, to support abused children and their families or to ensure that other children were protected from abuse by these offenders in the future.’’
Despite only recently coming into the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, Bishop Wright said his responsibilities to right past wrongs were not diminished.
‘‘As bishop, I apologise unreservedly on behalf of the diocese to those who have suffered abuse, to their families and friends, and to all who have been subsequently harmed by the unfolding of these matters,’’ he said.
‘‘My apology is intended to express the deep sorrow of the Catholic community that such things every happened to people in our church.’’
The second stage of the inquiry will be heard in Newcastle for the next three weeks.