Newcastle police have launched a formal investigation into allegations the Australian Catholic Church concealed the crimes of Hunter paedophile priest Denis McAlinden, including secretly attempting to force him from the priesthood in 1995 "for the good of the church".
It is one of only a handful of formal investigations of alleged Catholic Church cover-ups of child sex offender priests in Australia - and the second in the Hunter - and follows the handing over of church documents to police by the Newcastle Herald in May.
Northern region command operations manager Inspector Tony Townsend confirmed police were investigating an allegation that senior Catholic clergy concealed McAlinden's sexual abuse of girls aged 6 to 12 in the Hunter over decades.
"As a result of material supplied to police, the matter will be investigated," Inspector Townsend said.
An 11-page report giving a background to the documents, and outlining the elements of section 316 of the NSW Crimes Act - concealing a serious offence - was prepared for northern region commander Assistant Commissioner Carlene York in July.
The report notes that NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos must approve any prosecution of clergy under section 316.
Church documents handed to police include a letter written by the then Maitland-Newcastle Bishop, the late Leo Clarke, to McAlinden on October 19, 1995, urging McAlinden to agree to a "speedy" seven-week secret defrocking and assuring the priest that "your good name will be protected by the confidential nature of this process".
The letter was written in the same week that police, led by retired NSW police assistant commissioner John Ure, launched an investigation into Hunter paedophile priest Vince Ryan.
That investigation ended with Ryan sentenced to 14 years' jail for sexually abusing 35 young boys, and a police recommendation that the then Monsignor Patrick Cotter should be charged with concealing Ryan's offences.
The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to charge Cotter, primarily because of his age.
Church abuse victims' support group Broken Rites could confirm only one other formal police investigation of an alleged cover-up in Australia, in 1995, involving notorious Victorian priest Gerald Ridsdale.
Church documents given to police in May include a letter on November 2, 1995, from newly-appointed Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone to McAlinden in which he noted he had "no alternative but to reaffirm the comments of Bishop Clarke's letter to you of October 19".
He confirmed the defrocking process would continue "because of the gravity of the allegations against you, the evidence supporting those allegations and after full and continual consultation with Bishop Clarke over many months".
The documents also include statements from two of McAlinden's victims that were taken by then Maitland-Newcastle priest and current Australian Bishops Conference president, Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson.
Bishop Malone acknowledged McAlinden's multiple victims and issued a public apology for the "distress and lifelong impact" of his offending in a statement in October 2007 after the Herald revealed McAlinden was a serial child sex offender.
McAlinden died in 2005.