Secrets of the bishops: How Hunter church leaders failed to report pedophile priest

Denis McAlinden
Denis McAlinden

SENIOR Australian Catholic Church figures tried to secretly force a notorious Hunter pedophile priest from the priesthood, in full knowledge of the criminal nature of allegations against him, the "grave problems for the community" his behaviour represented and without reporting him to police.

Documents obtained by The Herald show two bishops, Leo Clarke and Michael Malone, and a future archbishop, Philip Wilson, had roles in an attempted "speedy" laicisation, or defrocking, of Father Denis McAlinden in October 1995, in which he was assured by Bishop Clarke that "your good name will be protected by the confidential nature of the process".

This was despite the Church having evidence of the priest's sexual abuse of children over many years.

Documents show the future Australian Bishops Conference president and Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson, Maitland Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone, his predecessor the late Bishop Clarke and a number of senior priests in the diocese had knowledge of allegations against the priest.

The defrocking process in October 1995 was launched just days after the diocese received formal complaints from two of McAlinden's alleged victims, and in the week police charged another Maitland Newcastle diocese priest, Vince Ryan, with sexually abusing young boys over several decades.

In the same week police started an investigation of Monsignor Patrick Cotter for concealing Ryan's crimes.

The forced defrocking replaced an earlier suggestion by Bishop Clarke, sent in a letter to McAlinden in the Philippines some time before, that he "live as a 'retired priest' in a climate that would be acceptable".

On October 19, 1995, Bishop Clarke wrote again to advise McAlinden he had started the process to force him from the priesthood and "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".

A formal decree drawn up by Bishop Clarke on that day said investigations had established "behaviour on the part of Rev D. McAlinden which has been deeply injurious to others, created disturbance and scandal" and represented "grave problems for the community".

The letter to McAlinden was sent less than a week after two sisters made formal complaints about the priest to the diocese.

Documents show Bishop Clarke signed an act of authorisation on October 12, 1995, appointing the then Father Philip Wilson as "Notary in the McAlinden Impediment to exercise Orders Case", the first stage of defrocking.

Father Wilson was Bishop Clarke's vicar general until 1990, when he travelled to America to study canon, or church, law.

A document shows Father Wilson collected a statement on October 13, 1995, from one of the priest's victims, who was eight when McAlinden first abused her and 11 or 12 when it ended.

The abuse included McAlinden fondling the girl when he made her say confession while sitting on his lap, the statement said.

Unsigned handwritten notes obtained by The Herald and titled "Father Denis McAlinden: Impediment to Exercise Orders summary of evidence" refer to the evidence of two "witnesses" who identified McAlinden "as the person who assaulted them". The notes describe "actions of a sexual nature".

The assaults "continued over a lengthy period of time", the notes say.

"The veracity of this testimony is added to by its consistency with the many reports of Father McAlinden's behaviour from other people.

"These two persons are only representative of many others who would, if asked, come forward to give testimony under oath," the notes say.

Cessnock-born Archbishop Wilson declined last week to answer questions about his role in the attempted laicisation of Denis McAlinden, emailing that "the appropriate authority to deal with all matters relating to this case is the Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle."

He declined to comment on whether he had written the notes, and why the matter was not reported to police.

In his letter to McAlinden, Bishop Clarke stated the "resolution of the problems associated with your ministry has been a concern to me for some time".

The decision to initiate the defrocking process, by asking McAlinden to petition the Vatican to release him from the priesthood, was taken after confidential talks with his Coadjutant Bishop Michael Malone and senior priests, Bishop Clarke wrote.

The decision was also made "in the light of your admission to [another priest]", he wrote to McAlinden.

"I beg you, for the sake of souls and the good of the Church, to co-operate in this matter so that it may be speedily resolved," Bishop Clarke wrote.

On October 26, 1995, McAlinden replied to Bishop Clarke's "extraordinary letter".

"I labelled your letter 'extraordinary', recalling that your latest correspondence, received in the Philippines, advised that I should live as a 'retired priest' in a climate that would be acceptable," McAlinden wrote.

The defrocking was not completed.

The Catholic Professional Standards unit notified police of complaints against McAlinden in March 2003.

It was not until October 2005 that the Maitland-Newcastle diocese contacted police, one month before McAlinden died of cancer.

In 2007 The Herald was told the defrocking stalled because McAlinden would not agree to petition the Vatican to leave the priesthood, and he could not be located.

A canon lawyer consulted by The Herald confirmed that laicisations without the consent of the priest were extremely rare, but could occur if the local church took the case directly to Rome.

The Herald has been able to confirm only one other case of an Australian priest defrocked because of child sex offences.

The majority of defrockings occur when priests voluntarily leave the priesthood, sometimes to marry.

In most cases priests have their "facilities" removed by the church, or are denied the right to act as priests, without the church taking the final step of laicisation.