By Peter Ellingsen
May 4 2002
It was not easy for the two Catholic laymen to front the archbishop with such terrible news. But after hearing a father's complaint that his son was being sexually abused by the local priest, Bryan Cosgriff and Brendan Murphy felt they had no choice. They made an appointment to see Archbishop Frank Little. It was 1978.
Ushered inside Raheen, the archbishop's imposing official residence in Kew, the two men told Sir Frank that the parish priest at suburban Gladstone Park - Father Wilfred "Billy" Baker - had been molesting the young son of a parishioner for the past year. While Little, leader of Melbourne's then 980,000 catholics, says he has no memory of the visit, the men say he was not pleased with what they had to report. Did they know the meaning of the word defamation, he wanted to know? Cosgriff, a magistrate, and Murphy, a barrister who later became a QC, explained quietly that they did.
Little described the allegations as "despicable". It was not a comfortable meeting. But it wasn't the last. Another occured at the archbishop's city office behind St Patrick's Cathedral in East Melbourne, after which Baker was moved from Gladstone Park to minister to the families of Eltham.
Baker's new flock was not told of the sex abuse allegations against him. Nor were the police involved. It took almost another 20 years for Baker to be suspended from the ministry after an independent investigation requested by the church.
By then Baker's reputation was such that parents at his last parish, St James in North Richmond, refused to allow their sons to serve as altar boys.
Eventually charges were laid and in 1999 Baker pleaded guilty to 16 charges of indecent assault of boys, and one of gross indecency. The boys were aged from 10 to 12 years. The assaults spanned a 20-year period, the earliest dating back to 1960. Evidence was heard in the County Court that Baker was transferred from one suburb to another after the archbishop was made aware of allegations against him in 1978.
This was not so unusual, the court heard. In the past, it emerged, pedophilic priests were moved around with the full knowledge of the church's hierarchy.In terms of managing predatory priests, it was not a tactic exclusive to the Melbourne archdiocese, as evidence in US courts in recent months has revealed. The mushrooming US Catholic Church sex scandal prompted Pope John Paul to summon US cardinals to Rome last month for an unprecedented crisis meeting. While specific cases against accused priests work their way through the courts, the key concern for the church's hierarchy is the groundswell of anger from parishioners convinced that not enough was done to protect their children from recognised predatory priests.
As in Boston, where the archdiocese has indulged in a cover-up of sexual abuse of children, Melbourne has shielded some pedophilic priests. As in Boston, Melbourne has allowed priests who had accusations of sex abuse against them to continue working with children. And, as in Boston, Melbourne, at least up to 1996 when Peter O'Callaghan, QC, was appointed as an independent commissioner, did not maintain clear records of abuse claims, or necessarily alert police to abuse allegations involving priests.
While Little, now 76 and retired, has "no memory of (the 1978 visit) whatever", he believes he acted properly on all complaints brought to him. Asked to comment on the record of Baker, he said, "I'm not going to answer any questions at this time".
On the December day in 1958 that the Catholic Church installed a 24-metre white cross above its new church in Dandenong, St Mary's parish priest, Father Kevin O'Donnell, led a 15-year-old altar boy into the presbytery and sexually molested him. O'Donnell, then 41, also abused the boy's brother, sister, friends, and scores of other children. The abuse almost sent his brother insane, and left him, his sister and his schoolmates scarred for life. But that was not the worst. What most upset him, and many more of O'Donnell's dozens of other victims, was what they perceive as a cover-up by church officials.
Between 1958 and 1992, when O'Donnell retired, the Melbourne archdiocese was repeatedly warned about him. Yet, despite the message being delivered to figures as senior as the vicar-general, or administrator, nothing happened. O'Donnell was left free to practice black-collar crime.
Shortly after the cross went up outside St Mary's, the molested altar boy alerted a local scoutmaster, who spoke to the archdiocese's vicar-general, the late Monsignor Laurie Moran. As a result, the late bishop Arthur Fox drove to Dandenong and spoke to O'Donnell and the boy.
Despite this - and claims a church figure discovered O'Donnell in bed with another boy - the predatory priest continued at Dandenong for another 11 years. By 1986, he was parish priest at Oakleigh, and, true to pedophilic behaviour, still abusing. That year, one of his Dandenong victims told two priests that he had been molested, but they "did not want to know the name of the offender".
That was unfortunate because O'Donnell, who used gifts and his collie dog Laddie to ingratitate himself with children, was then sexually abusing a five-year-old girl at the primary school near his church. A nun who had counselled one of his Dandenong victims wrote that year a letter telling the archdiocese of what she had learnt. Still, O'Donnell was left at Oakleigh for a further six years.
That was time enough for him to add the first girl's younger sister to his list of victims.
Not everyone looked away. Father John Salvano, who was O'Donnell's assistant at Oakleigh, found the older man an abusive bully. Salvano, then 35, was half O'Donnell's age and did not share the senior priest's notions of clerical power. O'Donnell, he noticed, treated parishioners badly, but no one seemed to complain. He put this down to the esteem, almost awe, in which priests were held. And then there were the kids, always the kids, hanging around. It made Salvano uneasy. A cannon lawyer who would go on to be secretary of the Catholic tribunal in Victoria, he resolved by late 1991 or early 1992 to warn then vicar-general Hilton Deakin. Salvano says he did feel he was being heard, and insists his warning was issued before Easter in 1992. Bishop Deakin can't recall if it was Salvano who first alerted him to O'Donnell. But he believes it was late 1992 when he was made aware of allegations about the priest. Immediately, he says, he sought advice as the archdiocese "had no policy on it (sexual abuse)".
Not only no policy, but no records either; or no records Deakin could locate. Even though the top echelon of the archdiocese had been getting complaints about pedophilic priests for years, there were no visible archives.
When Deakin, now 70, retired as vicar-general in January, 1993, he handed his successor, Monsignor Gerry Cudmore, just one sex abuse file, and that was the one he had compiled on O'Donnell, whom he says he stood down.
O'Donnell retired on 5 August, 1992, a year before one of his victims went to the police, and two years before he was charged. But his authorisation to practise as a priest was not withdrawn until July 28, 1993. In 1995, aged 78, he pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting 10 boys and two girls, aged between eight and 15, and spent 15 months in jail. He was freed in 1996, and died in 1997.
Questioned about what records the church had of O'Donnell's long predatory history, O'Callaghan - the man appointed by Melbourne's former Archbishop George Pell to investigate sex abuse allegations on behalf of the Melbourne archdiocese - says he is aware of allegations that Monsignor Moran was informed of the sexual misconduct of O'Donnell in 1958. But there's nothing on the archdiocesan files to reflect this, O'Callaghan says. There was also no record of Fox being informed of O'Donnell's conduct. When interviewed by a lawyer in 1994 over the issues, Fox strongly denied that he had ever been informed, or was aware of O'Donnell's misconduct, O'Callaghan says.
"Damien" - the victim who first went to police about O'Donnell - tried for five years to take the archdiocese to court, but gave up, exhausted, after church lawyers used cannon and crown law to frustrate his action. "In the '70s, when I was abused, the church had a moral problem," he says. "They've turned it into a legal one." His solicitor, Jim Cosgriff - the son of the magistrate who visited Little in 1978 - found suing the church nigh on impossible. "They will try any tactic," he says. "Ultimately, it has been disgraceful the way they've acted." He could not get the church to disclose its records. "We constantly tried to discover documents about abuse, but we could not ever get anything," he said.
The archdiocese now claims to have no record of complaints against O'Donnell and a number of other paedophile priests until charges were laid by the police. Asked about Salvano's warning to vicar general Deakin, Hart says: "(There is) no evidence that I know of. No record . . . I simply have no knowledge."
He "totally rejected" the claim of a cover-up. "In general, I'd say I have no knowledge of any allegations concerning individual priests that weren't acted on," he says. Asked if the churches action included letting the police know of complaints, Hart says: "I don't have any information available to me." He says that, as vicar-general, the post he held before becoming archbishop last year, he was familiar with all the files. Abuse was not a big issue until the 1990's, he says, and, "apart from the personal dealings of bishops with priests, there do not seem to be
records kept". So what records are kept on priests? Each priest has a biographical file, but according to Bishop Deakin, there are also "confidential files" that are kept secret. "There are files and files," he says.
"Controversial files are kept confidential, not in my office. I can't say where."
He says that if he had stayed longer in the vicar-general's job, he would have tried to "ferret out" more information. Looking back, he says that the way the archdiocese dealt with sex abuse claims was not "adequate or speedy enough".
"With hindsight, it beggars belief that there were no records," he says. "I don't know how many priests were guilty and most of us never knew. It is a great condundrum; there I was sitting close to the top of the anthill and I never knew."
Cudmore, who took over from Deakin in early 1993, is also unable to say why there were no records. He remembers the man he calls "Deaks" gesturing to a locked filing cabinet at the time of their handover, saying "there's something in that that may cause you a few problems". By the time Cudmore stepped down in 1996, the filing cabinet had gone from holding one file to 120, and sex abuse was the biggest and most difficult problem that the vicar-general faced.
"With hindsight, I would have to say, yes, the church had been negligent in the way it has dealt with sexual abuse," Cudmore says. He does not believe there was a cover-up but, he says, the matter was not properly handled. Cudmore, 69, recalls the last meeting he attended with the archbishop and bishops, the curia, in 1996, when he told his colleagues: "I can't do this job. I need help."
Shortly after, Little resigned and Dr George Pell arrived, bringing with him Peter O'Callaghan who investigates complaints and makes recommendations to the archbishop. His is not, Hart says, "a sweet-talking arrangement". In six years, the "Pell process", as O'Callaghan's brief is described, has paid around 120 people an average of $28,000 compensation, a total of more than $4 million. The number of people compensated is far less than the total of those abused. Many people do not wish to come forward, or are interested in taking civil action. Broken Rites, a support group for the abused, has received 3000 calls since it began in 1993.
In addition, there is a national compensation and counselling procedure called Towards Healing. It operates outside the Melbourne archdiocese and has so far handled about 500 cases. Its executive officer, former principal of Kilbreda girls college Mentone, Sister Angela Ryan, says the overwhelming majority of cases have been genuine. Ryan admits her faith has been "shaken" by what she has learnt about abuse in the church.
"In the past, abusers were recycled," she says. "When I look at it now I would use the words 'cover-up'. I wonder if they were trying to cover-up or trying to help rehabilitate, I don't know, I really don't know. (But) cover-up does not go on if people come anywhere near me".
Many victims complain the church has been too legalistic in dealing with them, and Ryan concedes this may seem so. "With court cases, we have not been good at supplying support for victims as well as perpetrators," she says. "It's really only when a bishop sits with a victim that they feel the pain. That gets them moving." She has walked away from interviews weeping, and admits that Rome lags behind in its attitude to sex abuse.
So, some might say, does Melbourne. While O'Callaghan is seen as a capable investigator, his process cannot pay out more than $55,000. Towards Healing has made payouts of more than $300,000, and does not always enforce, as does the Pell process, a confidentiality clause on victims and their pay-outs.
At least 76 Catholic clergy, priests and brothers have been sentenced for sexual abuse in Australian courts since 1993. At least 14 priests and brothers from the Melbourne archdiocese are among this number. In all, 22 priests are involved, but not all have been convicted, often because they died. For victims, often the biggest concern is the time it takes the church to rein-in criminal clergy.
Alan Spencer, 66, a former magistrate and now director of Towards Healing in Victoria, has been upset by the church allowing some priests to remain active, even after they were found guilty. He's raised this with church hierarchy, but had no response.
A recent archdiocese example is Monsignor James Murray, whom Pell let continue as head of the church in Geelong after a sex conviction in 2000. Murray pleaded guilty to having indecently assaulted a 25-year-old woman, a psychiatric patient then under his care, in 1973 when he was 49. Despite this, and a 1996 pastoral letter promising that priests who seriously abuse their power would not be allowed to go on exercising such power, Murray stayed on. Hart says Pell decided Murray should not be stood down because of "one action" in "an otherwise blameless priestly life".
In another case, the archdiocese allowed Father Denis O'Brien to continue as parish priest at Braybrook for some time after it discovered he had fathered a Down syndrome child to a parishioner.
But O'Brien, who abandoned the child when a second woman with whom he was having a sexual relationship came forward, was not removed from his post till mid-1999. He is now listed as a priest without appointment, and was supported by the Perth church before going overseas.
The 55-year-old mother of the Down syndrome boy, aged 14, is on her own. She got a payout of less than $25,000. O'Callaghan says O'Brien gave assurances that he had not engaged in any other misconduct, and was allowed to remain in the ministry until it was discovered later that he had lied.
Hart denies that priests have been recycled back into the ministry after being found guilty of sex offences, or that the church has responded to sex abuse in a legalistic way.
"The past six years show we are trying to address the matter in a compassionate way - compared to the civil arena, it is very compassionate," he said. "In every case the church acted with integrity and tried to care for anyone who may have been hurt, and then to seek the best solution which would help an individual priest to work through any issues or to receive help, so that he might move forward. That does not stand back from our position to take the hard decisions if we have to."
Damien stands beside the now rusting white cross outside St Mary's in Dandenong, the scene of O'Donnell's 1958 attack against a 15-year-old altar boy. Damien, abused by the same man 14 years later, surveys an upbeat sign draped near a statue of the blessed virgin, and shakes his head. The sign reads "Christ is our future" but, like Hart's reassurances, it is too late for him. His future was decided the day O'Donnell molested him in the sacristry, putting his hand down his pants and leaving a legacy of shame and distrust. As he wrote in a poem: "Remember Father, the greatest sin of all is the denial of sin."
Broken Rites: 9457 4999.
Independent Commissioner, Peter O'Callaghan QC: 9225 7979.
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.Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia