THE Catholic Church has avoided an historic first trial against an Australian priest for allegedly concealing the child sex offences of another person after a Newcastle magistrate dismissed charges against Hunter priest Lew Fenton.
Magistrate Robert Stone found inconsistencies in evidence by a man, his mother and sister about an alleged sexual assault when the man was 9, which was allegedly disclosed to Father Fenton, were so significant there were no reasonable prospects a jury would convict him.
But Mr Stone, in Newcastle Local Court yesterday, found there was evidence to show the boy was sexually assaulted by Frank Tully, a salesman with the Post group of newspapers, then owned by the Newcastle Herald, at Birubi beach between 1982 and 1984.
Mr Stone dismissed a charge that Father Fenton, 81, knew Tully was going to indecently assault the boy in a room at the rear of Nelson Bay church, and assisted him.
This followed conflicting evidence from the man, his mother and sister, and after significant evidence from the man in court that did not appear in his statement to police.
The reasons for the omissions from the statement ‘‘are not easily and sensibly explained’’, Mr Stone said.
The magistrate raised 11 matters before dismissing a charge of misprision of felony against Father Fenton – that he allegedly concealed or kept secret knowledge that Tully had sexually assaulted the boy at Birubi beach.
They included the lapse in time between the alleged assault and charges against the priest, the young age of the boy and his efforts years later to recollect events, Tully’s death in 1995, differences between what the man told police in 2012 and what he told the court in late 2013, and conflicting evidence from the man and his mother.
The mother alleged Father Fenton spoke with her son in private after the boy disclosed to her that Tully had touched him at Birubi beach. She alleged the priest told her nothing had happened.
Her son told the court last year that the priest told him and his mother at a subsequent meeting that ‘‘I’ve had a talk to Frank. He admitted he did it’’. His mother said there was no second meeting with Father Fenton.
Mr Stone said he was ‘‘suspicious’’ of the mother’s evidence that she made a note of a conversation with Father Fenton in July 2012 in which he allegedly made admissions.
The note was volunteered by her to the police on the morning she gave evidence, and had not been mentioned before that time.
Mr Stone said he was concerned about aspects of the man’s evidence to the court which ‘‘appears to have been learnt almost by rote for the purposes of him giving his evidence’’.
He could not be satisfied the man had disclosed to Father Fenton in the early 1980s that he had been sexually assaulted by Tully.
Father Fenton was the second Hunter priest charged with concealing the child sex crimes of another person, after the late former Maitland-Newcastle diocese vicar-general Father Tom Brennan was charged with misprision of a felony in 2012.
He died before the matter was finalised in court. Father Brennan was convicted in 2009 of making a false statement to police in which he denied knowledge of the child sex crimes of Father John Denham.
Cardinal Pell’s evidence live stream Monday
A SENIOR Catholic Church official has denied he contrived a tactic to support the Church’s legal stance that former altar boy John Ellis was never abused.
Michael Casey had been asked by then archbishop Cardinal George Pell to check whether or not the internal Church process had found in favour of Mr Ellis’s complaint of abuse by a priest at Bass Hill in Sydney in the 1970s.
Dr Casey, Cardinal Pell’s private secretary, told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse he was shown a June 2005 email from him to the Church legal team that said the Church-appointed assessor did find ‘‘on the balance of probabilities’’ Mr Ellis was abused by Father Aidan Duggan.
However, the email went on to say the director of the Public Standards Office, Michael Salmon, had mentioned there were reservations about Mr Ellis’s evidence, so the Church authority had discretion to reject the assessor’s findings.
In the email, Dr Casey wrote: ‘‘We can say the archdiocese has never accepted that Father Duggan was responsible for the abuse Ellis alleges he suffered, either under the Towards Healing process or at law’’.
Commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan asked him if the legal tactics were discussed.
Dr Casey said he was conveying instructions from Cardinal Pell, who had asked him to check the internal assessment of Mr Ellis.
Justice McClellan asked him if the answer should have been simply ‘‘yes’’, the internal process had found Mr Ellis’s claims credible.
Justice McClellan: ‘‘You, in the rest of the email, contrived to depart from that answer?’’
Dr Casey denied contrivance, but he told Justice McClellan he now accepted his answer was incorrect. AAP