The bishop showed the policeman into his bedroom. It could hardly have been a more genteel setting, a Catholic retirement facility at Lake Macquarie on the NSW central coast. He was cordial and welcoming. He’d laid out church documents on his bed in preparation.
But then the bishop duped the policeman. Ultimately, a paedophile priest got away, according to evidence at the NSW government’s special commission of inquiry into alleged cover-ups of child sexual abuse by two priests in the Hunter region.
The evidence before the inquiry is that senior church figures knew of recurring sex abuse allegations against paedophile priest FatherDenis McAlinden from 1954 but dealt with them by moving him around Australia and removing him from the priesthood instead of going to the police.
Senior clergy identified in church correspondence and witness statements tendered to the inquiry include bishops John Toohey, Leo Clarke and Michael Malone of the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese and Father Brian Lucas, now general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Clarke involved the pope’s ambassador to Australia, Archbishop Franco Brambilla.
As well as the meeting in Clarke’s bedroom in 2003, the inquiry is paying attention to a June 2002 tip-off from Malone to paedophile priest Jim Fletcher about a policeinvestigation.
In a PR coup for the church last week, current bishop Bill Wright made an apology from the witness stand and promised the church would support any further victims. Toohey and Clarke are both dead. The retired Malone is due to give evidence this week, as is Lucas. Malone has previously expressed regret and apologised for his actions. For commissioner Margaret Cunneen, SC, divining what these men did or didn’t do is pivotal to determining the veracity of the claims that sparked the inquiry.
In an open letter to Premier Barry O’Farrell last November, as detailed on the ABC’s Lateline, whistleblower policeman Peter Fox alleged that the Church ‘‘covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the Church’’.
This week, the inquiry enters the sixth of seven weeks of public hearings. For the first four weeks it focused on its first term of reference, on why Detective Chief Inspector Fox was asked to stop investigating alleged child sex abuse by Fletcher and McAlinden, and whether that was ‘‘appropriate’’.
Fox was excluded from a police strike force known as Lantle – investigating a sex abuse cover-up within the church from 2010 – even though he had been conducting his own inquiries for years. He has claimed there is a ‘‘Catholic mafia’’ within the NSW Police.
The senior officer who left him off Strike Force Lantle, Detective Chief Inspector Wayne Humphrey, gave evidence hehad believed Fox was a ‘‘zealot’’ who was ‘‘beyond driven ... in relation to the Catholic Church’’ andthe investigation needed a ‘‘fresh set of eyes’’.
Strike Force Lantle has sent a brief to the Director of Public Prosecutions on the alleged concealment of offences by Catholic Church officials but no charges have yet been laid.
Malone will be the first church witness to come under examination. Commissioner Margaret Cunneen, SC, has said there is little doubt that McAlinden and Fletcher were ‘‘sexual predators who, utilising their position as priests of the diocese, separately committed heinous offences against vulnerable young children’’. But McAlinden got away.
He died in Western Australia in 2005 without ever having been convicted, yet his history of offending is recognised as having spanned four decades. The number of his victims is unknown, but some allegations relate to children as young as four and five. In Western Australia in 1993 he was acquitted of indecent dealings with a 10-year-old girl.
Fletcher was convicted in 2004 on nine counts of sexually abusing an altar boy, and died in jail in 2006. More of his victims have come forward, ‘‘including to this inquiry’’, Cunneen said.
Even confined to the cases of McAlinden and Fletcher, the commission has examined more than 100,000 pages of documents and conducted more than 120 hearings, conferences and interviews with church officials, police and others. The most explosive evidence so far is in letters between church officials and to and from McAlinden tendered in evidence this week.
These show church officials were aware of McAlinden’s alleged abuse of children from 1954 onwards, and that at various times from the 1970s to the 1990s church officials sent McAlinden around Australia and the world, or at least knew where he was. The letters refer to admissions of offending by McAlinden.
Yet in 1999, and again in 2003, investigations ground to a halt when he could not be located, despite police inquiries to the church.
That’s why the meeting in the bishop’s bedroom is crucial. According to Fox’s testimony, he visited the by then retired Clarke at a Catholic retirement facility at Valentine, Lake Macquarie, in 2003.
Fox was investigating the case of a woman who’d come forward to report she had been raped by McAlinden in 1954 when she was aged 11, and he was an assistant priest at Raymond Terrace. Her parents went to the bishop about it at the time. In 1999, the woman told police and the church she had been on medication for depression and anxiety for 30 years, had hated having sex with her husband and could not talk with her children about sex.
Fox wanted to ask Bishop Clarke about rumours that the bishop knew of more victims of McAlinden than the woman whose case he was already on to. Bishop Clarke told him ‘‘no’’, according to Fox’s evidence.
The whistleblower told the inquiry this was a ‘‘blatant lie’’. Letters tendered in evidence to and from Clarke indicate he knew of allegations against McAlinden from at least 1976. The letters that, it can be presumed, were not among the documents laid out on Clarke’s bed in 2003, included one to Clarke in 1976 referring to an uproar among parishioners in Forster about McAlinden’s treatment of girls, suggesting he be recommended to the Geraldton diocese in Western Australia ‘‘because it will afford a good cover-up’’.
Clarke wrote to McAlinden in 1993 to inform him of moves to formally withdraw his faculties as a priest ‘‘in light of certain serious allegations, ’’ and directing him to see Father Lucas in Sydney. Later correspondence from Clarke said Lucas had handled the matter with ‘‘dexterity ’’ and had obtained admissions from McAlinden.
Clarke wrote to the Bishop of Nottingham in Britain in 1994 informing him McAlinden would be living in his area but had been referred to counselling within the British church and should not be allowed to work as a priest. He wrote urgently to a bishop in the Philippines in 1994 refusing to release McAlinden to work there as a priest, then informing him McAlinden had admitted to serious allegations and imploring him to send the priest back to Ireland because his accusers in Australia were threatening to go to the police. When he didn’t hear back from the Philippines, Clarke wrote to the papal ambassador in Canberra, Archbishop Brambilla, asking him to get the pope’s representative in the Philippines involved.
The inquiry is not set up to examine the full extent of what Cunneen termed the Newcastle-Maitland diocese’s ‘‘very troubled history regarding issues of child protection and the sexual abuse of children’’. The Newcastle Herald has reported that, to date, nearly 20people associated with the diocese have been convicted, charged or are facing court over child sex abuse allegations.
Outside the inquiry, Fox has told journalists he knows a great deal more than he is allowed to say from the witness stand. Commissioner Cunneen has made the point more than once that matters that have come up in the inquiry’s investigations but fall outside its terms of reference, including those raised by Fox, have been referred to the national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, expected to start hearings in public later in the year.
Fox has told the inquiry that had he known of the documents now produced by the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, he would have pursued several more lines of inquiry into possible offences.
A string of senior clerics are in line for the witness box this week.
Cunneen is to report to the governor by September 30 on whether there is evidence to warrant prosecution of individuals for specified offences.