Catholic leaders 'could not accept' that priests would abuse: inquiry 

CATHOLIC leaders simply could not accept that ordained priests might commit child sex abuse, a senior church figure has told an inquiry.

And where they did, they believed it was a ‘‘one-off’’.

Asked whether there was a ‘‘cultural disinclination’’ among senior Catholics to confront claims of abuse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Monsignor John Usher replied: ‘‘It was not so much cultural but spiritual’’.

The monsignor on Monday fronted the special commission of inquiry into how church leaders and police handled child sexual abuse allegations against two Hunter Valley priests.

He said that 20 years ago the first response from bishops and other senior Catholics to claims of child sexual abuse by a priest was disbelief.‘‘(They thought), ’this couldn’t be true’,’’ he said.

"'And if he did, it was only a one-off, and we’ll forgive him and he won’t do it again’.’’

Many in the church believed pedophile priests could be ‘‘cured’’ if they received counselling, he said.

‘‘I’m not saying it was a universally held view but our church is strong on forgiveness and reconciliation and if someone said ’I’m truly sorry, I’m not going to do it again’, there was a tendency to believe them.’’

Monsignor Usher said he did not recall dealing with the two clergy at the centre of the inquiry, Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher.

But the Sydney Archdiocese chancellor said he went straight to police in two cases involving a brother and a priest who admitted to abusing children.

On other occasions parents sought his help reporting abuse to the authorities.

But he said ‘‘adamant’’ victims often dissuaded the church from contacting police.

‘‘In those days, victims were very frightened or scared ... that if they reported the matter to the police, they would have to go to a court and give evidence and it would become public,’’ Monsignor Usher said.

‘‘Trying to respect their wishes was one thing.’’

The monsignor told the inquiry his recollections did not always line up with those of senior priest Brian Lucas, who has already given evidence.

The pair travelled together through NSW and the ACT for six years, until 1996, meeting priests accused of child sexual assault and other criminal behaviour and trying to convince them to leave the priesthood.

Father Lucas revealed in July that he never took notes during the confidential meetings.

Counsel assisting the commission Julia Lonergan SC asked Monsignor Usher if this was a deliberate move to avoid ‘‘a paper trail’’.

‘‘No, I did keep notes and records of cases that seemed to be important,’’ he replied.

The inquiry continues in Sydney before Margaret Cunneen SC.

EARLIER REPORTS

A SENIOR NSW Catholic has told an inquiry how church leaders believed pedophile priests could be ‘‘cured’’ if they received counselling.

Monsignor John Usher on Monday fronted a Sydney court for the special commission of inquiry into how church leaders and police handled child sexual abuse allegations against two Hunter Valley priests, Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher.

Under questioning from counsel assisting the commission Julia Lonergan, Monsignor Usher recalled a steep ‘‘learning curve’’ faced by senior clergy who were grappling with abuse allegations in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

‘‘It’s important to understand that the church, like many other institutions, really believed that if someone committed these offences it was possible for them to go into therapy and to be cured,’’ Monsignor Usher told the inquiry.

‘‘I’m not saying it was a universally held view but our church is strong on forgiveness and reconciliation and if someone said ’I’m truly sorry, I’m not going to do it again’, there was a tendency to believe them.’’

Monsignor Usher said he and a number of others in the church eventually became convinced that pedophiles were very likely to reoffend.

Their task was then to educate church leaders and advocate for the victims of abuse, he said.

‘‘We were trying to help the bishops to understand that it was not necessarily about protecting the institutions, and certainly not about protecting the offender,’’ he said.

The monsignor has told the inquiry his recollections did not always line up with those of senior priest Brian Lucas, who has already given evidence and is due to return to the witness box on Monday.

Father Lucas revealed in July that he never took notes during confidential meetings with pedophile priests.

‘‘Did you deliberately not prepare any documentation so that there would not be a paper trail?’’ Ms Lonergan asked Monsignor Usher on Monday.

‘‘No, I did keep notes and records of cases that seemed to be important,’’ the witness replied.

The inquiry continues before Margaret Cunneen SC.

EARLIER REPORTS

THE special commission of inquiry into aspects of child abuse in the Maitland Newcastle Catholic Diocese has resumed hearing evidence in Sydney on Monday.

Monsignor John Usher, who worked with Father Brian Lucas on allegations of child sexual abuse by priests in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was asked by the counsel assisting, Julia Lonergan, about his investigation practices at the time.

Monsignor Usher said he usually took notes of his investigations although not at the time of interview. He would write them on the day or the day after.

He told the commission that some of his recollections of that time differ from those given in earlier evidence by Father Lucas.

Father Lucas told the inquiry in Newcastle last month that it was not his general practice to take notes of his investigations.

The hearing continues.

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