THE Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese will establish an independent review panel to determine the future of priests criticised in findings of the child sex abuse special commission of inquiry.
But abuse victims have called the move ‘‘ridiculous’’ and ‘‘yet more evidence that the Church has learned nothing’’.
Bishop Bill Wright published a lengthy statement in the diocesan magazine Aurora yesterday, defending the Church’s response to the inquiry’s findings against six senior clergy.
Commissioner Margaret Cunneen made adverse findings against Father William Burston and Monsignor Allan Hart. The diocese has allowed them to retain their positions in their parishes, but withdrawn them from any committees which report to the bishop.
Bishop Wright said it was ‘‘my decision to leave Father Burston and Monsignor Hart in parish ministry’’ because the inquiry found insufficient evidence to warrant criminal charges.
The inquiry did, however, find the pair were ‘‘inconsistent’’ and ‘‘unsatisfactory’’ witnesses who, along with Bishop Leo Clarke (now deceased), Monsignor Patrick Cotter, Father Brian Lucas and former bishop Michael Malone, knew of the crimes committed by predatory priests Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher but failed to notify police and, in some cases, covered up the crimes.
‘‘I can understand people who disagree with my decision and I respect their sincerity,’’ Bishop Wright said.
His decision to leave them in their parishes was ‘‘most appropriate ... in a situation where any choice I make will cause some level of distress to people within the diocese’’.
Bishop Wright said he was in the process of establishing an independent review panel ‘‘to provide me with advice’’.
‘‘The panel will include members drawn from both within and outside the diocese,’’ he said. It will include a ‘‘gender balance’’ and a number of ‘‘non-Catholics’’.
Victims groups, though, said such a panel would be pointless, and were angered that the bishop appeared to be favouring the views of parishioners over victims.
‘‘Who are these people who are saying they want Burston and Hart to remain in their positions?’’ Hunter Clergy Abused Network spokesman Bob O’Toole said. ‘‘Where are they? Can they step forward?
‘‘If Bishop Wright really cares about his church, as he claims, and if he really cares about victims and survivors, as he claims, and if he really cares about the remaining parishioners, then he needs to act.
‘‘Stand them down, or ask for their resignation or allow them to retire.’’
Pat Feenan, the mother of abuse victim Daniel, described the bishop’s move as ‘‘yet another committee’’.
‘‘There’s been a lot of talk within the diocese, but I wouldn’t mind him asking what the victims of Fletcher and McAlinden think he should do.’’
In a statement issued by the diocese late yesterday, Bishop Wright said the panel was the right way forward.
‘‘After consulting widely at the information and discussion sessions held across the diocese in June, and speaking with people throughout the diocese itself, we believe the formation of the Independent Advisory Panel is a step in the right direction.
‘‘We are well advanced in confirming the members, and we believe the panel will be in a position to begin work within the next month.’’
Published July 1 on the Catholic Diocese of Maitland Newcastle website and in Aurora Magazine, the the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
The release of the report of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, headed by Margaret Cunneen SC, into certain matters of child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is an event of very great significance, not only to this diocese, but to the broader church and nation. Originally called to inquire into the conduct of police investigations into these matters and into the church’s role in helping or hindering those investigations, the Commission has ultimately also shed a great deal of light on the diocese’s knowledge and handling of the abuse perpetrated by Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher.
The appalling but inescapable conclusion of this Inquiry is that senior officials of the diocese, including former bishops, had various degrees of knowledge of the paedophile behaviour of McAlinden over several decades but failed to report his crimes to police and failed to prevent, by internal procedures, his going on to abuse more children. In relation to knowledge that officials of the diocese may have had of Fletcher’s abuse prior to Bishop Malone’s time, the Commission has received certain evidence that it has reserved to the fourth, confidential, volume of the Report. It has also been critical, as a separate matter, of Bishop Malone’s handling of the first allegations against Fletcher that came to him in his early years as bishop.
I have previously made a detailed response to the Cunneen Report, including in my open letter of 30 May and during the press conference of 3 June. Since the press conference I have held a series of open forums across the diocese, to provide the people an opportunity to ask questions or make comment as to the Cunneen Report and its findings. In most of these forums the question of “What happens next to Fr Burston and Mons Hart?” arises. I’ve also been told that some people in the diocese believe that “Nothing’s happening – it’s business as usual” because the men were asked to stand aside from any diocesan roles but have remained in parish ministry. On the evening of 17 June, the Right Honourable Barry O’Farrell MLA stated this view in a speech to Parliament:
Bishop Wright simply stood him [Mons Hart] aside from advisory positions in the diocese. As a response to such a damning inquiry it was completely underwhelming—more a sign of spin than a response to the grave sins of omission.
There are two aspects to these types of comment which I need to address; the more significant issue of establishing and conducting a procedurally fair process for determining just and reasonable outcomes relating to the future of two priests’ ministry, and the interim decision that they remain in parish ministry, while the aforementioned process is carried out.
As part of Commissioner Cunneen’s report, Mons Hart was considered for referral to the Director of Public Prosecutions for criminal charges, however it was found that there was “insufficient evidence warranting the prosecution of Hart in relation to any failure by him to report to the police the offending by McAlinden” and that “the prosecution would be unlikely to be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt the absence of reasonable excuse”. Fr Burston was not considered for criminal charges. As there appears to be no prospect of either man facing criminal charges, the question then becomes one of translating Commissioner Cunneen’s adverse findings from a strictly legalistic framework into a holistic and moral understanding of the potential consequences for Fr Burston’s and Mons Hart’s ongoing ministry. In recognition of the seriousness of these circumstances and to protect the integrity of the process, Fr Burston and Mons Hart were asked to stand aside from any diocesan roles, which they did immediately.
I know that some people have already achieved a crystalline clarity in relation to these matters. One view has been publicly promoted in a number of forums. This position argues that there is no need for further deliberations, both men have been the subject of adverse findings by Commissioner Cunneen and consequently should be stood aside from all public ministries immediately and made to retire or resign from all their roles or positions in the diocese. Anything less demonstrates a failure in leadership. The alternative view has been expressed to me by a number of laity within the diocese. It is not promoted publicly by those people stating it, but is put with equal conviction and earnestness by its exponents. This position argues that both men have dedicated most of their lives in the service of this diocese and our Catholic faith and their conduct in front of the Special Commission when weighed up against their decades of service is insufficient cause to make them resign. Consequently the two men should be left in place to continue their ministry to the faithful in their parishes.
As Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle I will not concede to either view. In response to a question asked at the 3 June press conference, I said among other things that:
In regard to the two men that you mention [Burston and Hart], of whom the Commissioner has made some criticism, both in regard to their past involvement in things, but more particularly to the way in which they gave evidence or the character of that evidence, we will need as a diocese to take some time I think to consider exactly what those findings of the Commission are, what it is that they’re saying.
And nothing said since that time has changed my mind as to the importance of conducting a separate process to determine the appropriate outcomes for either man. Thankfully, this is the first Special Commission that the diocese and diocesan personnel have been the subject of and consequently there are no established structures in place appropriate to conduct this process. I am working towards establishing the Independent Review Panel to provide me with advice. The panel will include members drawn from both within and outside the diocese. The panel will be predominantly laity, I am seeking to achieve a gender balance and include a number of non-Catholics. In the coming weeks I will provide you with further details as to the process; through the diocesan website, in the following edition of Aurora and through parish and school bulletins.
It was my decision to leave Fr Burston and Mons Hart in parish ministry. I have made a judgement call based on a number of grounds; including particular consideration of the adverse consequences suffered by the faithful of the parishes that would be affected, should they be stood down. I can understand people who disagree with my decision and I respect their sincerity. It was not a decision taken without thought and prayer and I believe it is the most appropriate decision, in a situation where any choice I make will cause some level of distress to people within the diocese.
The process we have begun will be complex and require some time to complete. I ask for your patience and understanding as we work through this next stage of a very sad and hurtful exploration of the diocese’s terrible legacy of failing to protect children. Most of all I ask that you pray for those who were harmed; our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbours and work colleagues who have to deal with the consequences of abuse on a daily basis, so that they may find some healing and peace.
You can also read a statement in response to the Special Commission Report from Bishop Emeritus Michael Malone, which was published in the July Aurora.
Published June 3 on the Catholic Diocese of Maitland Newcastle website
I welcome the publishing of the long-awaited report of the Special Commission of Inquiry into child sexual abuse in the Hunter Region. The Report is substantial and thorough – it reveals significant research and investigation by Commission Staff.
As one who was in a position of leadership during the last 20 years covered in the Report, I have a real interest in its conclusion and recommendations.
When appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in 1995 I quickly learned of its troubled state. Immediately on my appointment a priest was arrested, charged with child sexual abuse and jailed. This was followed by a number of offenders, at least 2 of whom were sentenced to jail.
At the outset I was an inexperienced bishop who revealed his lack of experience in sometimes hesitant and indecisive ways. I felt torn between wanting to support the unfortunate victims of abuse and protecting the reputation of the Catholic Church. I eventually learned that it was not possible to do both. I also realised that I needed compassionate and professional child protection staff to ensure more appropriate compliance with moral and legal requirements.
The Commission has been critical of a number of people, including myself. I know that I am not beyond criticism. In my evidence before the Commission, I acknowledged my past mistakes. However, I stand by my evidence and express disappointment that the Commission has chosen to interpret some matters differently from myself.
The Report sheds light on a toxic period in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle where, for some, secrecy and self-protection took precedence over protecting the vulnerable.
I renew my deep regret and sorrow that too many innocent people were hurt in that time when we failed to effectively intervene and consequently allowed abuse to continue. It takes a big effort to turn a culture around, but I am confident that change had begun in my time, is continuing under Bishop Wright and this Report will be part of continuing that process.