A notorious Melbourne paedophile priest escaped justice and lived out his life in Britain because the Victoria Police failed to question him about serious child sex allegations, the force has admitted for the first time.
Police Assistant Commissioner Steve Fontana has confirmed to The Age that Father Ronald Dennis Pickering was not pursued because detectives handling complaints about him in the 1990s believed force command was unlikely to support any request to travel to Britain.
Pickering, who died in Britain recently after fleeing Australia in 1993, has been linked to the suicides of up to eight people he allegedly sexually abused as children at various Catholic parishes around Melbourne in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
The Melbourne Catholic archdiocese has acknowledged in writing Pickering's ''proclivity for child abuse'' and has financially compensated several victims. Pickering is understood to have received some pension entitlements from the church after its leadership became aware of his crimes.
Mr Fontana said other factors contributing to the decision to leave Pickering alone were the dated nature of the complaints and the reluctance of one potential victim to press charges.
However, he acknowledged such complaints would be handled differently today.
"[It's] a completely different environment … we've come a long way," Mr Fontana said.
The Age understands that British police were never asked by their Victorian counterparts to question Pickering, who left Melbourne for the English seaside town of Margate after he was warned in 1993 by a senior person in Victoria's Catholic hierarchy that sexual abuse complaints about him had emerged.
A police file on Pickering shows detectives first received allegations about Pickering's sexual abuse in November 1995. A more specific complaint came in March 1996 from another person who alleged Pickering had sexually abused him at St Mary's parish in East St Kilda.
The file shows that detectives established Pickering was overseas and his name was entered on a database so any re-entry to Australia would be flagged.
A third allegation against Pickering was lodged with police in 1998, this time from a man who claimed to have been sexually abused at the St James parish in Gardenvale in Melbourne's south.
A fourth allegation was made to police in April this year, around the time The Age revealed a confidential police report written by Detective Sergeant Kevin Carson that linked more than 40 suicides in country Victoria to a small group of paedophile clergy.
Within days of The Age story, the Baillieu government announced it would establish a parliamentary inquiry into the handling of abuse complaints by religious groups. The story also prompted deputy commissioner Graeme Ashton to accuse the Catholic Church of failing to report criminal acts.
Head of the sexual crimes squad, Detective Inspector Paul Binyon, told The Age a team of detectives had been assigned to ''dig deeper'' into Sergeant Carson's initial findings, which included an accusation the church knew of the link between clergy abuse and suicides but chose ''to remain silent''.
Inspector Binyon said any further evidence uncovered by his detectives could form part of a wider police submission to the inquiry. He also said police would look to the inquiry to make recommendations on the issue of the church's relocation of known sex offenders to different parishes or overseas and whether this constituted perverting the course of justice.
In contrast to its failure to pursue Pickering, Victoria Police has recently increased its efforts to question a former Melbourne-based Marianist brother alleged to have sexually abused young children before returning to his native United States.
US law enforcement agencies have been asked by Victoria Police to arrest and question Brother Bernard Hartman after two more alleged victims and a witness came forward following a report by The Age in December that revealed his 1999 written admission to Melbourne woman, Mairead Ashcroft, who he abused when she was aged between eight and 11 years old.
Brother Hartman, 73, worked in Catholic schools in Australia in the 1970s, and is still working for the church in Dayton, Ohio.
Once he is questioned in the US, Victoria's Director of Public Prosecutions is expected to be asked by police whether there is sufficient evidence to extradite him to face charges.
Detective Sergeant Bob Stanwick, who has led the investigation into Brother Hartman, recently told a Melbourne newspaper that the alleged offences were serious. "We're talking straight out rape and sexual penetration," he said.
The Cincinnati Catholic archdiocese this year admitted Brother Hartman was performing clerical work in a job where he operated under a "safety plan'' that ensured he had no contact with young people or vulnerable women.