A Hunter child sex offender priest and the price of power

IN October, 1995 a Hunter Catholic priest took down a short statement from a woman who had been sexually abused by a priest from when she was eight, once while he was hearing her confession.

The child sex offender priest was Denis McAlinden, an Irish cleric sent to Australia at the age of 26. 

The woman told of repeated sexual abuse over three or four years.

I’ve spoken with her many times. I’ve spoken with two other McAlinden victims who were also sexually assaulted by him while in the confessional.

If you go to the Vatican website and find the Code of Canon Law it includes Canon 1387. It says that a priest who “under the pretext of confession solicits a penitent to sin against the sixth commandment” – thou shalt not commit adultery – “is to be punished . . . by suspension, prohibitions and privations”. In graver cases “he is to be dismissed from the clerical state”.

It’s accepted by some theologians that the sixth commandment covers the whole of human sexuality, and not just the strict interpretation of adultery. In other words, sexually abusing a child in the confessional could invoke Canon 1387.

Documents show retiring Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Leo Clarke, Father Brian Lucas, incoming bishop Michael Malone and the priest who took the statement had roles to play in an unsuccessful attempt to defrock McAlinden in 1995, with his “good name protected by the confidential nature of this process”.

Both bishops included warnings to the priest about “the real possibility of police intervention”. Another church document compiled before the defrocking attempt noted the “many reports of Father McAlinden’s behaviour from other people”. 

Of course no-one from the Catholic Church contacted police until just before he died. His “good name” was largely protected by the church.

Brian Lucas - who went on to become one of the Australian church’s most high profile media spokesmen and general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference - denied any memory of the McAlinden affair or his role in it. NSW Special Commission of Inquiry commissioner Margaret Cunneen didn’t believe him.

“The approach Lucas took, supported by the diocese, of attempting to have McAlinden resign from the ministry rather than being reported to police was short-sighted and failed to have proper regard to the continuing risk McAlinden posed to children,” she found in a report made public in 2014.

It’s not unreasonable to read those words as a shot across the bow to any institution thinking that after the unpleasantness and discomfort of nearly five years of royal commission scrutiny, life will resume as normal when the final reports are handed to the Federal Government in December. For this is all about power.

It’s worth recalling incidents like this when we consider how some senior church representatives responded this week after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its 2040-page Criminal Justice Report. One of its 85 recommendations to address the almost “insurmountable barriers” faced by sexual abuse victims when seeking justice in the courts today – including contemporary sexual abuse of children by family members – exercised the church.

The commission recommended that clergy should not be able to refuse to report child sex allegations because the information was received during confession.

Note the words used by the commission - “there be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege” - granted to clergy when it comes to their obligations to protect children.

It’s not unreasonable to read those words as a shot across the bow to any institution thinking that after the unpleasantness and discomfort of nearly five years of royal commission scrutiny, life will resume as normal when the final reports are handed to the Federal Government in December.

For this is all about power.

In February Catholic bishops and archbishops danced on the head of a pin during a final public hearing that considered the confession issue. They were asked what they would do if a child, Sally, told them in confession today that she was being sexually abused by a family member.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher – who in 2008 notoriously said child sex survivors and advocates were “dwelling crankily on old wounds” – told the commission that “I believe I’m bound by the seal of confession not to repeat it”. Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart gave a roughly similar response. They both said they would attempt to help the child outside the confessional. 

Other bishops said the confessional seal was binding in terms of a person’s confessions, but not the crimes of others.

It was commissioner Robert Fitzgerald who cut to the chase about what the real issue is for the Catholic Church – the dilemma of having “two sacred obligations that are now in conflict”.

There was the “sacred duty” to protect children based on scripture, church teachings and its commitments to civil authorities and the “equally sacred commitment to the seal of confession”, leaving the church with “the dilemma of its own theology”.

“For the church itself, it is that twin dilemma that it now has, and it hasn’t yet dealt with it,” commissioner Fitzgerald said.

Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson was the first to respond.

“You’re quite correct, and you’ve said it better than I was able to say,” Wilson said.

That is the test for the Catholic Church.

It was abuses of power against children that led us to this.

It is the church’s inability to cede power to civil authorities and prioritise the protection of children, even now and after evidence of its appalling, systemic and grievous crimes, that remains an indictment.

The issue isn’t about confession. It’s about church, state and the power struggles ahead.