THE Hunter’s most senior Catholic has spoken of the shame and ‘‘tremendous regret’’ created by some of his predecessors, but the Church is yet to take any disciplinary action against any of those still alive.
Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright became a willing but heavily burdened face of the Church on Tuesday when he issued a public response to the special commission of inquiry’s findings that during their time in the diocese, at least seven senior clergy had played a role in covering up the abuse by paedophile priests Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher.
Bishop Wright, who assumed his role only three years ago, acknowledged that his diocese carried a dark history, a ‘‘sad and sorry story of which we can only be ashamed’’.
The commission found that Monsignor Allan Hart and Father William Burston were ‘‘unsatisfactory’’ witnesses and provided ‘‘inconsistent’’ evidence. It also found that Bishop Leo Clarke (now deceased), Monsignor Patrick Cotter, Father Brian Lucas and most recent bishop Michael Malone knew of McAlinden and Fletcher’s offending but failed to notify police and, in some cases, covered up the crimes.
The commission has also referred a senior member of the Church to the Department of Public Prosecutions, but the Newcastle Herald is not yet able to identify the person.
Bishop Wright revealed yesterday that he had asked Monsignor Hart and Father Burston to stand aside from ‘‘any of the official structures of the diocese that advise me’’.
But they will remain in their parishes, he said, because they ‘‘are both very senior men and they are both very well regarded in most respects’’.
There has been no action taken by the broader Catholic Church.
Father Brian Lucas is the current secretary-general of the Australian Bishops Conference.
Bishop Wright noted that his predecessor Malone was instrumental in establishing victim support network Zimmerman Services and was among the ‘‘good people ... who give great strength to me’’.
‘‘Throughout all those decades it’s a sad and sorry story of which we can only be ashamed’’– Bishop Bill Wright
The commission, however, found that while Bishop Malone was the first senior Hunter Catholic to co-operate with police investigations, he was selective in what information he gave them and had deliberately altered a diary entry ‘‘with the intention of creating a false record to support his version of events’’.
Bishop Wright, though, made no defence of ‘‘the failings of our diocese’s former leaders’’ and offered genuine concern for victims and their families.
‘‘It is an appalling story, first of all because many children have been abused, but secondly because it details senior figures in this Church ... that were aware at least in part of the offending behaviour of McAlinden around their time, and yet he was never stopped,’’ Bishop Wright said.
‘‘Various efforts that were made to do something about him were ineffective to say the least and were driven by a concern to prevent scandal, or protect the Church’s reputation, and the needs of the victims often ran a very poor second to that.
‘‘Throughout all those decades it’s a sad and sorry story of which we can only be ashamed.’’
He also warned that investigations are ongoing and may reveal even darker days ahead for the Church. The royal commission, he said, ‘‘may in time take an interest in Maitland-Newcastle as well’’, while Strike Force Lantle, the police investigation launched after the Herald revealed the extent of child sexual abuse cover-ups within the Church, was ongoing.
He said the diocese will continue to analyse the commission’s findings for ways in which to improve practices as well as improve services to ‘‘survivors’’ of clergy abuse.
‘‘I also feel a sense of hope,’’ he said, ‘‘based on the fundamental goodness of people, the enduring strength of our Catholic faith and our capacity as a community to learn from our past failings and rise above them.
‘‘Our diocese continues to invest significant resources into systems and personnel designed to protect our children and work with those who have been harmed, to explore new pathways towards healing.’’