AN internal Catholic investigation into a televised outburst by retired priest Bill Burston over the 1974 suicide of 13-year-old abuse victim Andrew Nash has ended after Father Burston agreed voluntarily not to perform mass or other church rituals.
The Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, Bishop Bill Wright, confirmed the investigation and its outcome in a face-to-face interview with the Newcastle Herald on Thursday.
Andrew's mother Audrey Nash said she was disappointed with "a slap on the wrist" outcome, while her son and Andrew's brother, Geoffrey Nash, described it as an "absolute f---ing insult".
Bishop Wright, however, described it as "a proportionate response".
He acknowledged, however, that Fr Burston could still conduct mass privately.
He would also be allowed to officiate at baptisms, weddings or funerals if asked by people he had known well.
Bishop Wright acknowledged that Fr Burston had retired in the face of an earlier church inquiry in 2015, formed after the Cuneen inquiry, ordered by the NSW government and run between 2012 and 2014, described Fr Burston as an "unsatisfactory and unimpressive" witness.
The Royal Commission ran from 2013 to 2018. Case Study 43 into the diocese was coincidentally published this week.
The executive summary notes "the evidence establishes" Fr Burston knew in 1976 of a complaint of "sexually inappropriate behaviour" against his fellow priest Vince Ryan.
The trigger for the latest investigation of Fr Burston's actions was the three-part ABC documentary Revelation, which aired in March this year as an examination of Catholic sexual child abuse, centred on the dioceses of Maitland-Newcastle and Ballarat.
In the second 90-minute episode, Fr Burston tells the cameras he still believed the death of 13-year-old Andrew Nash in 1974 was a prank gone wrong.
As Joanne McCarthy reported in March, Fr Burston would not accept that Andrew had been abused, despite the church formally recognising him as a victim of teacher Brother Romuald, who was convicted of sexually abusing 24 boys.
But it was Fr Burston declaring he had "had enough of Andrew Nash" that triggered angry responses from dozens of parishioners.
When Revelation host, senior ABC journalist Sarah Ferguson, asked Fr Burston why he was "so sure" Andrew had not been abused, he replied: "He showed no signs of sexual assault."
Ferguson: "To who?"
Burston: "His mother."
Seated, he then looks to the ground and says: "Look. I've had enough of Andrew Nash, really, absolutely. I went in and anointed him and I'm the bad guy? Why? I don't know."
The Herald learned of the bishop's investigation in August, when former Lateline journalist Suzie Smith released her book about abuse in the diocese, The Altar Boys.
At the time, Mrs Nash would not speak about the process, because she wanted to give the bishop "time to prove he was serious about doing something".
"He told us he couldn't act by himself, that there had to be a process, and that a committee had been formed, and that once that committee had come to its recommendations, he would act," Mrs Nash said yesterday.
On October 12, the Herald wrote to the diocese (which responded), to arrange a meeting about the issue. During Thursday's interview, it emerged that the investigation had concluded some time ago.
Asked whether the Nash family had been told, Bishop Wright said: "No."
Mrs Nash said the bishop rang her soon after. Geoffrey Nash said the failure to tell the family beforehand, despite knowing that the Herald interview had been scheduled for more than a week, showed "again that nothing has changed with the church, that it still treats my 94-year-old mother like she's the cleaning lady who doesn't need to know".
"Nothing has changed at head office," Mr Nash said.
"When our barrister Hilbert Chiu and ourselves were talking with the bishop after Revelation, we told him we wanted a formal announcement about this."
"To go on national TV, like Bill Burston did when he said he didn't believe my little 13-year-old brother had killed himself because he had been molested and couldn't stand another day at that school.
"As far as we're concerned, we need Bishop Bill Wright to stand up and say: 'No. Bill Burston is wrong. Andrew did commit suicide. It was not a prank gone wrong or any of the other lies they have spread around over the years trying to put the blame back on us'.
"Bill Burston might think he's had enough of Andrew Nash, but this is not over, not by a long shot. There are avenues of appeal here, and we will be pursuing them."
Clerical records show the Singleton-born, Vatican-trained Fr Burston began in the diocese in 1970 with academic qualifications that included a Masters degree in psychology from Dublin.
His appointments included five years as vicar-general - regarded as second-in charge of any diocese - from January 1996.
Leo Clarke retired as bishop in late 1995, succeeded by Michael Malone, who was replaced by Bishop Wright in 2011.
The Herald approached Fr Burston for interview through the diocesan office, but was told he had declined.
Bishop Wright said Fr Burston's comments generated "a significant response", including some "15 or 20 messages" that came to the diocesan office from people "very unhappy" about his "remarks".
The bishop said a one-off or "ad hoc" committee had been formed to conduct the 2015 inquiry, but this time he referred the complaints to a permanent body known as the Diocesan Protection and Safety Council.
Bishop Wright said he would not be making the council's report public, or providing a copy to the Nashes, but he said the report recommended that Fr Burston "go out of public ministry".
The bishop confirmed that Fr Burston had conducted mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral in September while the investigation was still underway but said it was "a misunderstanding".
"He is not a child abuser or something like that," Bishop Wright said.
"He has done something that caused offence to good people, which has made him himself a cause of offence. If people were to see him still celebrating mass . . . that would be hurtful. But it's not appropriate that we go to the extreme sort of measure that you would use in a child abuser or something."
In a written statement, the diocese said the bishop "retains the option to formally order a canonical process for suspension should Fr Burston not adhere to the agreement".
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