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A redacted version of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s report of Case Study 35 –Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne – was released today.

This report follows a public hearing held in Melbourne in November and December 2015 and in Sydney in February and March 2016 during which the Royal Commission heard about the response of Catholic Church authorities within or associated with the Archdiocese of Melbourne to allegations and complaints of child sexual abuse made against seven priests of the Archdiocese. 

The Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference require that the work of the Royal Commission not prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings. For this reason, Commissioners recommended that at this time a redacted version of the report be tabled and published. It is expected that an unredacted version of the report will be tabled and published at a later date.
Archbishop Little’s response
The Royal Commission heard that Archbishop Thomas Francis Little, who headed the Archdiocese from 1974 to 1996, dismissed or ignored serious allegations of child sexual abuse against a number of priests. He did not investigate the many allegations that were brought to his attention and did not report them to the police. He also moved offending priests to other parishes where they continued to offend.
The case of Father Peter Searson was “remarkable in terms of the volume of complaints against him and the number of Church personnel to whom they were made”. Archbishop Little was told of a long list of allegations against Father Searson in the Sunbury parish between 1974 and 1984. These allegations included the rape of a young woman and threatening a girl with a knife. One parishioner told the Archbishop they did not want to leave children alone with him. It was also alleged that Father Searson conducted sex education classes with students in his bedroom.
In 1984 Archbishop Little appointed Father Searson parish priest at Doveton. Holy Family School was attached to the parish. In his new position Father Searson also became the employer of staff at the school. The Royal Commission heard about the problems this created.
Complaints against Father Searson continued to be made while he was at Doveton, including: that he pointed a gun at children; that he had made a “sexual advance” to a child in the confessional; and that some parishioners would not allow their children to be alone with him.
Commissioners were satisfied that by the end of 1986 Archbishop knew of matters that “were undoubtedly sufficient to demonstrate that Father Searson ought to be removed from a parish appointment and posed a grave risk to the safety of children”. Commissioners concluded that Archbishop Little “abjectly failed to protect the safety and wellbeing of the children within the parish” by not removing Father Searson. Father Searson remained the parish priest at Doveton until March 1997 when he was placed on administrative leave by the new Archbishop, Archbishop Pell.
Commissioners observed that, while only the Archbishop had authority to remove Father Searson, given the number of individual Church personnel with knowledge of complaints against Father Searson it was “extraordinary that there was such a long period of inaction”. Other Church personnel also failed to recognise the need for action. The “catastrophic human consequences” of this inaction were revealed in the story of BVC who was sexually abused by Father Searson in 1992. Commissioners report, “The fact that Father Searson remained in a position of authority as a parish priest – a position he exploited to abuse BVC – is directly attributable to Archbishop Little’s ongoing failure to take action against Father Searson”.
In the case of Father Baker, Commissioners agreed with Archbishop Hart’s observation that it was a case of the Archdiocese “failing to act on credible information about criminal abuse by a priest” which resulted in more children being abused, a delay in developing widespread awareness of the incidence and the risk of sexual abuse by some members of the clergy, and in preventing its occurrence.
Despite having received complaints of child sexual abuse made against Father Nazareno Fasciale, Father Desmond Gannon, Father Ronald Pickering and Father David Daniel, Archbishop Little allowed them to resign or retire on the grounds of ill health or “stress”.
Commissioners heard that Archbishop Little allowed Father Pickering, Father Daniel and Father Gannon to be treated as though they were eligible for financial support from the Priests’ Retirement Foundation as if they were retired priests. Commissioners found, in the case of Father Pickering, that this was “subterfuge”. Commissioners found that Archbishop Little endeavoured to conceal that these priests were receiving financial support.

Culture of secrecy

Commissioners were satisfied that in relation to complaints of child sexual abuse there was a prevailing culture of secrecy:

“We are satisfied that the evidence in the case study showed a prevailing culture of secrecy within the Archdiocese, led by Archbishop Little, in relation to complaints. Complaints were dealt with in a way that sought to protect the Archdiocese from scandal and liability and prioritised the interests of the Church over those of the victims.”

Commissioners found that there was a “practice of using oblique or euphemistic language in correspondence and records concerning complaints of child sexual abuse” with terms like “Special Issues” being used to refer primarily to complaints of child sexual abuse.
Commissioners also found that minutes of the meetings of the Curia (a body of senior clergy who advise and assist the Archbishop) were generally euphemistic, incomplete and inaccurate. None of the minutes referred directly to child sexual abuse or other similar terms.
Considering the evidence as a whole, Commissioners were satisfied that “there were such complaints which were or were likely to have been discussed” on various occasions. It was clear to Commissioners from the minutes “that the purpose of not recording information was to protect the assets of the Archdiocese in the event of a claim being made against it”.

Dysfunctional systems, procedures and practices

Commissioners were satisfied that the dysfunctional systems, procedures and practices and their idiosyncratic operation in the Archdiocese inevitably led to poor outcomes in responding to allegations of child sexual abuse. Dysfunctional systems included the structure of Catholic education in Victoria whereby the parish priest is the employer of staff at parish schools. There were also deficiencies in recordkeeping and a failure to apply policies where they existed.

Commissioners found that during the tenure of Archbishop Little, decision-making within the Archdiocese in response to complaints of child sexual abuse against priests was highly centralised. There were no effective checks and balances on the Archbishop’s exercise of powers in relation to priests who were the subject of complaints. Commissioners concluded, “As the evidence in the case study makes plain, a system for responding to complaints of child sexual abuse in which the exclusive authority for making decisions was vested in one person, is deeply flawed”.
Read the report