HE was the Catholic bishop whose term in office started in 1995 with two of the Hunter’s most notorious paedophile priests, was dominated for 16 years by “quite explosive local problems of historical abuse”, and ended with his request for early retirement, exhausted by the struggle within his own church.
In the witness box at the royal commission on Thursday, retired Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone said he reached a point where “You either had to try to defend the church or you had to try to serve the needs of survivors, and I chose the latter”.
Royal commission chair Justice Peter McClellan responded with the question at the heart of the child sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church – “Why was it ever a choice?”
Bishop Malone gave evidence for the second time in three years about his response to child sexual abuse allegations in the diocese. On Thursday he was questioned about paedophile priest Vince Ryan. In 2013, at the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, it was about priests Denis McAlinden and Jim Fletcher.
The bishop admitted he had covered up church knowledge of Ryan’s offending 20 years before the priest was finally charged in 1995, after two of his victims went to police. He admitted he issued a public statement after Ryan was sentenced in 1996 in which he failed to say the church knew “an awful lot more” than it was forced to concede.
By 1996 he also knew of child sex allegations against Hunter Marist Brothers Dominic (Darcy O’Sullivan), Romuald (Francis Cable) and Patrick (Thomas Butler), who would go on to be charged with offences, and jailed in the case of Dominic and Romuald.
The Marists acknowledged Brother Patrick was a child sex offender after his death, after articles in the Newcastle Herald.
Bishop Malone told the royal commission he did not follow up on the Marist allegations after reporting them to senior Marist Brother Michael Hill, because “that was his bailiwick, not mine”.
He was dealing with “quite explosive local problems of historical abuse” by priests, he noted in a letter written by him at the time.
“Touchy feely kind of things” that did not involve penetration were once seen by the church as a “moral problem” requiring priests to go to confession, be forgiven his sins, do his penance “and he would be able to continue on”, the bishop said.
“How could that ever have been?” Justice McClellan said.
Bishop Malone replied that the church was “a bit of a strange beast” that had “its own culture, its own law, its own way of obeying structures within the church” and so was “divorced from society.. so that civil law somehow was not seen as impinging on the life of the church”.
“All of that, thank God, has changed,” he said.
The royal commission was told the Catholic Church’s insurers initially refused to cover the diocese for $6 million in claims from 13 of Vince Ryan’s 30 known victims, because the church had known of his serious offences for two decades, and had failed to reduce the risk to children.
“At best the activities of various agents of the diocese in that period can be described as reckless indifference,” an insurer told the diocese in 1997.
It noted that at worst, one of the diocese’s most senior priests, Monsignor Patrick Cotter faced being charged with concealing serious crimes because of his knowledge of Ryan’s offending.
Bishop Malone told the royal commission he received little information from retiring Bishop Leo Clarke during a handover, and none about what the church knew about Vince Ryan. Malone was on holidays when Ryan was charged, and did not even get a call from the diocese.
Justice McClellan asked the bishop if his 1996 statements on Ryan were restricted because he didn’t want people to “perhaps turn away from their faith”.
When Bishop Malone replied “Yes”, Justice McClellan responded: “That’s covering up, isn’t it?”
The bishop replied: “Well, it is, yes.”
Bishop Malone admitted he had not told the truth when he wrote a complaint to the Newcastle Herald after a column by journalist Jeff Corbett saying the diocese had known about Ryan’s offending for years.
“For Mr Corbett to accuse church authorities of covering up this case is both incorrect and a slur on the integrity of those authorities,” Bishop Malone wrote.
At the royal commission on Thursday Justice McClellan put to the bishop: “That statement by you is not correct, is it?”
Bishop Malone replied: “No, it is not correct, your Honour.”