Royal Commission slams former Ballarat Bishop in Melbourne report

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has delivered a scathing assessment of the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s handling of abuse allegations, including the response from former Ballarat Diocese Bishop Peter Connors. 

Former Ballarat Diocese Bishop Peter Connors

Former Ballarat Diocese Bishop Peter Connors

The report delivered a week out from the final recommendations being handed down primarily focused on the response from former Archbishop Frank Little, who “dismissed or ignored serious allegations of child sexual abuse against a number of priests” between 1974 and 1996. 

The Commission found that Bishop Connors, who held a number of positions in the Archdiocese including Vicar General and Auxiliary Bishop, failed to respond to reports of sexual abuse. 

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The report found that in instances of reported sexual misconduct Bishop Connors, along with other colleagues, drew an unnecessary distinction between a reported concern and a ‘formal complaint’ as a reason not to pursue complaints further. 

When addressing the Commission “Monsignor Connors accepted that he failed to put pressure on the Archbishop (Frank Little) to act and he regretted this” when faced with allegations of sexual abuse by Father Wilfred Baker in the early to mid 1990s in the North Richmond Parish. 

Commissioners also 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 throughout the Archdiocese. 

All up the Archdiocese was found to have dismissed, ignored or covered up sexual abuse allegations from seven priests, at least four of whom Bishop Connors directly received complaints about. 

In one instance, Bishop Connors knew of three complaints against Father Peter Searson in 1985 but failed to stop him from being removed from parish ministry. 

References to Cardinal George Pell, who succeeded Little as Archbishop of Melbourne, are scarce in the redacted document due to an ongoing legal investigation. 

The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne has been found to have ignored, dismissed or covered up allegations of appalling child abuse by seven of its priests in a bid to protect the church's reputation and avoid scandal. 

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse delivered a withering assessment of the Archdiocese's handling of clerical abuse, with much of its opprobrium reserved for former Archbishop Frank Little who died in 2008.

"We are satisfied that the evidence in the case study showed a prevailing culture of secrecy within the Archdiocese, led by Archbishop Little," the royal commission found. 

"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."

The redacted report released on Tuesday made no findings on the conduct of Cardinal George Pell, who succeeded Little as Archbishop of Melbourne,  but pointedly mentioned that its terms-of-reference prevented the release of information that could "prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings".

It said an unredacted report would be tabled at a later date.

The Commissioners used the shocking case of Father Peter Searson to underscore the Archdiocese's systemic failure to discipline priests accused of predatory behaviour.

Despite an allegation of rape in 1974, Searson continued to abuse children in parishes in Sunbury and Doveton until 1986.

In 1993, he threatened a girl at the church doors with a knife, but again, no action was taken.

"The matters known to Archbishop Little by the end of 1986 were undoubtedly sufficient to demonstrate that Father Searson ought to be removed. By not removing Father Searson, Archbishop Little abjectly failed to protect the safety and wellbeing of the children within the parish," the Royal Commission report stated.

During his testimony to the commissioners, Cardinal Pell described Archbishop Little's response as "absolutely unsatisfactory". 

The commissioners also identified a "practice of using oblique or euphemistic language in correspondence and records concerning complaints of child sexual abuse".

Terms such as "special issues" were used to conceal complaints of child sexual abuse against priests.

The royal commission, which has interviewed hundreds of victims since it was announced in 2012, 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". and never referred directly to child sexual abuse.

The commissioners found 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". Despite being the subject of serious complaints, Archbishop Little also encouraged several priests, to retire on the grounds of ill health.

Archbishop Little allowed Father Ronald Pickering, Father David Daniel and Father Desmond Gannon to be treated as though they were eligible for financial support from the Priests' Retirement Foundation.

Current Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart said he accepted the Commission's finding  there was a culture of secrecy within the Archdiocese that sought to protect it from scandal and liability and it had prioritised the Church's interests over those of victims. Archbishop Hart said the mishandling of complaints against priests had led to unnecessary suffering for victims and their families.

"Where this abuse occurred resulting from the passivity or inactivity of predecessors of mine, I sincerely apologise and accept responsibility," he said.