MAITLAND-Newcastle priest Bill Burston ‘‘manifestly failed’’ to give evidence of ‘‘conspicuous candour and honesty’’ at an inquiry into Hunter paedophile priests, a panel headed by a retired NSW judge has found in a report that has raised further questions about Bishop Bill Wright’s handling of the issue.
Strong criticism of Father Burston, 80, in a report released on Monday sits at odds with the bishop’s statements about the priest and Monsignor Allan Hart, 75, both before and after its release, including that Father Burston ‘‘feels he’s a victim of the times and in a sense he’s right about that’’.
In a radio interview yesterday the bishop said that ‘‘the times are demanding more; the church is looking for more from its priests than not having committed a crime’’.
Child sex victim Bob O’Toole said the bishop’s comment, while staggering, was not a surprise because ‘‘nothing surprises me anymore’’.
But it was in sharp contrast to the panel report that better reflected the feelings of victims and their families about the moral dimension of negative findings against Monsignor Hart and Father Burston after their evidence at the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into Hunter paedophile priests, Mr O’Toole said.
Commissioner Margaret Cunneen, SC, rejected much of their evidence about their knowledge of paedophile priests Denis McAlinden and Jim Fletcher, and described them as ‘‘unimpressive witnesses’’ in her final report last May.
But a panel appointed by Bishop Wright, and headed by retired NSW Court of Appeal judge Ken Handley, detailed the extent of Father Burston’s failings at the commission of inquiry, in an 11-page report that called for the priest’s resignation and, if he refused, the removal of his rights to act as a priest.
‘‘A continuation of his public ministry would hinder the mission of the church,’’ the panel found.
While the panel was ‘‘well aware of the potential injustice of judging conduct in the distant past by the very different standards of the present’’, in relation to both priests’ responses to hearing child sex allegations about a priest in the 1990s, their evidence at the inquiry was a different matter, the panel found.
‘‘We see no injustice in judging your conduct in the witness box of the commission in 2013 against contemporary standards in the community,’’ the panel wrote in show cause notices to both priests.
‘‘In any event it may be appropriate for the panel to apply higher standards, those expected of a priest and elder of the Church by Christ, His Church, and faithful priests and laity.’’
The panel rejected Father Burston’s submission that Ms Cunneen had only found him an unimpressive witness in certain respects.
‘‘It is clear from the transcript that the ‘certain respects’ referred to by the commissioner were not limited or isolated, but related to significant and extensive parts of Father Burston’s evidence.’’
His continued public ministry had been ‘‘fatally compromised by his evidence before the commission and its findings’’.
In a response to the panel on February 13 Father Burston said he was ‘‘grateful’’ to Bishop Wright for allowing him to retire after Easter, so that he could finish ministry ‘‘in the communities which I know and love’’.
In a show cause notice to Monsignor Hart on October 30 the panel noted that a church investigation found the priest’s evidence to the inquiry had not breached church law, and the most adverse action the panel could have recommended was Monsignor Hart’s retirement.
Monsignor Hart retired before a finding against him.
In a response he accepted he had given misleading evidence to the inquiry, and had failed to report paedophile priest Denis McAlinden to police.
Monsignor Hart rejected strong criticism of his failure to report to police because church protocol only required bishops to report child sex allegations to an internal church committee.
‘‘Any criticism of Monsignor Hart, by the [present] bishop or by the Diocese, for not ’urging’ his bishop to report to police would frankly be hypocritical when viewed against the failure to the Church’s own document to mandate that bishops report complaints of this kind to police,’’ Monsignor Hart’s solicitor said on his behalf in response.