Child abuse royal commission: Senior Melbourne clergy 'motivated to protect church's reputation' over abuse complaints

ABC News, Australia/December 3, 2015

By Danny Morgan

A senior Catholic Bishop has admitted he and other leaders of the Archdiocese of Melbourne had not properly addressed child sexual abuse complaints because they wanted to protect the church's reputation.

Appearing before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Bishop Peter Connors also conceded senior clergy have considered whether they may be guilty of concealing a crime.

As a former Vicar-General of the Melbourne Archdiocese, Bishop Connors was aware of multiple cases of priests abusing children dating back to 1978.

He told the commission he should have done more to convince former Archbishop Frank Little to remove the priests.

It was put to the Bishop that church leaders were motivated by a desire to protect the church from scandal.

"That could well have been the case. Yes, I accept that view," he replied.

Commission chair Justice Peter McClennan: It's a fundamentally damning allegation of the church, isn't it?

Bishop Connors: It is indeed, I accept.

Justice McClennan: Do you accept it's entirely contrary to the church's purpose and mission?

Bishop Connors: Yes, I accept that your honour.

The Bishop was asked about the implications of the failure to act on complaints.

"My question really is whether the men ever discussed the fact that they may be concealing crimes?" Commissioner Andrew Murray said.

Bishop Connors answered: "I would expect that the other bishops particularly would have raised the issue that we were concealing a crime."

Senior officer 'disagrees' with decision not to charge priest

Earlier, a senior Victorian police officer has criticised an investigation into child sexual abuse allegations levelled at Melbourne Catholic priest Father Peter Searson.

Julie Stewart had previously told the child abuse royal commission that in 1985 she was made to sit on Father Searson's knee in the confession box.

She said he initiated sexual contact and she ran away screaming.

Ms Stewart told authorities about the incident, but a police report in 1990 concluded the priest had not committed an offence and he was never charged.

Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana said on Wednesday he believed Father Searson could have been charged with indecent assault.

"Reading the statement, I thought quite clearly there was an indecency around it," Assistant Commissioner Fontana said.

"To suggest that there was none and even, I think somewhere in the documentation or report that suggests it wasn't a sex offence, I disagree with.

"I think the whole circumstance was surrounded with indecency."

Justice system needs to 'change attitude' towards victims

Commission chair Justice Peter McClennan said the case showed those in the justice system needed to change their attitude to circumstances where there were no witnesses to the sexual assault of a child.

"We have to address this issue: why is it that there is a reluctance to prosecute or accept the evidence of complainants where there is only one person complaining?" Justice McClellan said.

Father Searson died in 2009 without ever being charged with child sex offences.

The Catholic Church has paid compensation of $291,000 to three of his victims.

The commission had previously heard that aside from sexual abuse allegations against Searson, the priest was also accused of pointing a gun at students, showing children a dead body in a coffin and holding a knife to the chest of a child.

Despite the long list of complaints in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Catholic Church never properly investigated.

His faculties as a priest were removed in 1998 after he had pleaded guilty to assaulting an altar boy.

The hearing continues.

By Danny Morgan

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