NSW Police will give prosecutors evidence that three of the most senior members of the Catholic Church allegedly concealed the sexual assault of young girls in the Hunter Region, in a landmark case that could expose the church to a new wave of criminal prosecution.
One of three persons of interest in Strike Force Lantle is Australian Bishops Conference general secretary Father Brian Lucas, who is alleged to have been aware of the actions of paedophile priest Denis McAlinden as far back as 1993, but failed to report the priest to police.
The others are Archbishop Philip Wilson, who yesterday wrote to police to formally decline to be interviewed, and retired Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle Michael Malone.
Between 1993 and 1995 the three men had roles in internal moves against the priest, including a secret attempt to quickly defrock McAlinden in October 1995 because of the weight of evidence against him. At the time, the church failed to report the matter to the police.
Instead McAlinden was assured by the then Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Leo Clarke that “your good name will be protected by the confidential nature of this process”, despite “your admission to Fr Brian Lucas and other evidence”.
“A speedy resolution of this whole matter will be in your own good interests as I have it on very good authority that some people are threatening seriously to take this whole matter to the police,” Bishop Clarke’s letter said.
He urged the priest to agree to a ‘‘speedy’’ defrocking, ‘‘for the sake of souls and the good of the church’’, as police were about to charge another paedophile priest, Vince Ryan, with sexually assaulting young boys over two decades.
In a follow-up letter several weeks later new Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone told McAlinden the ecclesiastical censure would proceed ‘‘because of the gravity of the allegations against you [and] the evidence supporting those allegations’’.
Bishop Malone and Father Lucas declined to comment yesterday.
A spokeswoman for Archbishop Wilson said it was ‘‘not appropriate to comment and matters relating to any police inquiry should be referred to the police’’.
The Church only reported McAlinden to state authorities in 2003 after his victims took their allegations directly to police and were paid compensation by the Church.
McAlinden died in a church-run aged care facility in Western Australia in 2005 without facing charges. In 2007 Maitland-Newcastle diocese was forced to confirm McAlinden was a serial child sex offender of possibly hundreds of girls aged between four and 12 over at least four decades.
The Newcastle Herald has confirmed that a brief of evidence and substantial investigator’s report of the church’s handling of the McAlinden case will be handed to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in the next few weeks.
If prosecuted, the Herald believes it would be the first time any church official has been charged with section 316 of the NSW Crimes Act, which makes it an offence to conceal a serious crime.
Strike Force Lantle head Detective Graeme Parker said it was an exhaustive 15-month investigation, which included recorded interviews with Father Lucas and retired Bishop Malone about their knowledge of the activities of McAlinden and ‘‘how they progressed the matter’’.
Detective Parker confirmed Archbishop Wilson declined to be interviewed in an email to police yesterday.
The then Father Philip Wilson was made notary for the McAlinden defrocking, and recorded the statements of two victims, including one woman who told him she had been sexually abused by McAlinden ‘‘on many occasions’’ between the ages of eight and 11.
Another woman described McAlinden’s sexual abuse of her, and her two daughters.
‘‘We think it’s a shame because there are questions that really need to be asked of Archbishop Wilson,’’ Detective Parker said.
‘‘We made numerous attempts to get him to the table to be interviewed but he’s exercised his right to silence.’’
Church documents include a 1976 letter from the late Maitland-Newcastle Monsignor Patrick Cotter to Bishop Clarke about McAlinden, in which the monsignor suggests the priest’s offending is of a lesser seriousness because it involves children.
‘‘He feels no such inclination towards mature females, but towards the little ones,’’ the letter said.
‘‘I have never heard of this condition before and knowing Father McAlinden as we do, we do not think it can be real serious, nor do we believe of any danger of it turning into assault or rape.’’