Call for royal commission into priest sex cases

Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright has expressed his ‘‘broad support’’ for a royal commission into the Catholic church’s handling of sexual abuse cases after an overwhelming public response to the disappearance of a paedophile-priest victim.

In a statement yesterday Bishop Wright acknowledged the growing calls for a royal commission, saying ‘‘I am broadly supportive of public inquiries into these matters’’.

‘‘It would be for government to determine, in consultation with their agencies and other groups in the community, what would be the best form of inquiry and into which particular issues it should inquire.’’

It is believed to be one of the first public expressions of support by a senior NSW Catholic clergy member for a formal government inquiry.

Bishop Wright issued the statement after Belmont North woman Tracey Pirona spoke of her husband John’s disappearance on Sunday, and the letter which left no doubt the ‘‘too much pain’’ he was feeling was linked to being a victim of a notorious Hunter paedophile priest.

‘‘The longer this goes on the worse I feel about what the outcome’s going to be,’’ Mrs Pirona said.

The Herald article generated an overwhelming public response, with (90per cent) of 1200 people responding to an online poll supporting Mrs Pirona’s call for a royal commission.

John Pirona’s father, lawyer Louis Pirona, said he was pleased at the bishop’s attitude because ‘‘I think authorities in the church have failed in their openness to deal with these matters’’.

‘‘They’ve failed to recognise that matters that are crimes should be dealt with by the appropriate authorities in our community, and not be hidden in in-house hierarchical reviews,’’ Mr Pirona said.

‘‘The criminal justice system, and not individual organisations such as the church, need to be responsible for the investigation and prosecution of crimes.’’

NSW Greens MP and lawyer David Shoebridge said the bishop’s statement was significant because it came from a senior member of the Catholic church.

It was also significant because the NSW government had so far resisted calls for an inquiry.

‘‘When the church itself, and senior members of clergy, are increasingly recognising the need for an inquiry, it’s time for the Premier to change his position,’’ Mr Shoebridge said.

In a letter to Attorney-General Greg Smith in April, Mr Shoebridge proposed draft terms of reference for a NSW parliamentary inquiry ‘‘to address systemic issues, rather than delve into the specifics of individual cases of abuse’’.

‘‘Sadly, the inquiry in Victoria has only been announced after the tragic effects of failure to recognise and deal with the legacy of past abuse became known,’’ he said.

Trish and Michail Day, whose son was also a victim of the notorious paedophile priest, who can’t be named for legal reasons, said a royal commission was necessary.

Mr and Mrs Day staged a silent protest in Sacred Heart Cathedral in 2010 as former Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone celebrated a jubilee service for priest and former school principal Tom Brennan.

Brennan was convicted of making false statement to police after saying he had no memory of people warning him about the notorious paedophile priest.

Bishop Malone’s support for Brennan betrayed the trust victims and their families felt they had with him, Mr Day said.

‘‘The church and its hierarchy have demonstrated they’re not like Christ or what Christ represented,’’ he said.

Retired Bishop Malone said he had no comment to make about Mr Pirona’s disappearance.

Bishop Wright expressed concern for the Pirona family.

‘‘As Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle and on behalf of the entire Diocese, our thoughts are with Mrs Pirona and her family during this difficult time and we pray that John will return safely home,” he said.

Mr Pirona was thought to be driving a silver 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, AQN-48E.

Anyone with information is urged to contact Lake Macquarie Detective Sergeant Kristi Faber.

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