An Australian priest is being investigated in Papua New Guinea over confessional allegations

AN Australian Catholic priest is being investigated by Papua New Guinea police for allegedly touching female students during confession after a bishop denied the priest “caressed their thighs to get some personal satisfaction”.

Vincentian priest Father Neil Lams allegedly held a teenage girl on his lap, “cuddled” some girls and bought gifts for them, touched girls on the thighs during confession, asked them questions about whether they had sex with their boyfriends and “how many times”, slapped some students on the head and called others “sweet baby”.

In an email to the Newcastle Herald Father Lams said an investigation was “currently in progress”, but “the allegations are at present based on gossip and I am not guilty of any criminal activity in any way”. He declined to respond to questions.

Father Lams was ordained in Australia in May, 2011 and served short periods in Sydney and Townsville before Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart appointed him assistant priest to the Victorian parish of Malvern in 2014. After a short term Father Lams requested a missionary appointment and was sent to PNG by the Vincentian order.  

A Papua New Guinea Catholic Bishops Conference committee launched an investigation into Father Lams in November, 2016 after a former Catholic Church employee wrote to the Pope’s representative in Papua New Guinea alleging sexual abuse involving a teenager.

But a week after the church investigation was confirmed Vincentian Bishop Rolando Santos, of the Alotau diocese in eastern PNG, wrote to the former church employee saying there was “no truth to the allegation”.

The allegations are at present based on gossip and I am not guilty of any criminal activity in any way.

Australian Vincentian priest Neil Lams

​Port Stephens woman Wendy Stein, who runs a Rotary-funded family planning project in Papua New Guinea, complained to local police on September 5 after 16 students from a Catholic high school in Alotau diocese made statements alleging Father Lams touched them on the thighs and slapped them during confession.

A group of expat Australians and PNG residents, including a former Catholic priest, lodged a second complaint with police about Father Lams’ behaviour with students last week.

Ms Stein said she went to police after the church failed to respond to a written complaint by teachers to Bishop Santos in March, in which they asked for Father Lams’ immediate removal because of “unacceptable behaviour” with boarding school students, including alleged “advances being made on them”.

The teachers alleged the priest encouraged students to breach school rules and visit him after hours for counselling, and told teachers the students did not need permission to visit his residence. 

What Father Neil did was definitely NOT a form of sexual abuse or harassment but rather an imprudent or inappropriate behaviour done without malice.

Papua New Guinea Bishop Rolando Santos

The 16 students alleged the priest touched girls on the thighs, held some girls by the hand and hips, slapped others on the head and questioned them closely about sex.

“I am afraid of him and I always try to avoid him when I see him around,” said one student in a statement in which she alleged that during confession Father Lams would sometimes “lay his hands gently or smack my thighs”.

Allegations against Father Lams have been raised with the Australian High Commission in PNG and Australian Federal Police. Both advised complainants to take allegations to local police. The AFP also contacted local police about the allegations.

Ms Stein said she was “disgusted and appalled” by the Catholic Church’s failure to respond to complaints and the Vincentian order’s silence.

“Children in PNG are very vulnerable because of the poverty so it is particularly important that the church monitor its representatives and respond appropriately when matters are raised,” she said.

NSW Greens Justice spokesman David Shoebridge said the Catholic Church had global reach but it wasn’t matched by global responsibility.

“The hierarchy in Australia cannot just sit silently by. They share responsibility. Just when you think the Catholic Church can’t disappoint you more, just when you think they might have learnt to give the benefit of the doubt to victims, not priests, you get this,” he said.

The Vincentian order in Australia did not respond to Newcastle Herald calls. A St Stanislaus College, Bathurst newsletter in 2011 congratulated Father Lams on his ordination and noted he had “visited Stannies on a number of occasions and been interested in our Vincentian work at this school”.

Malvern parish priest Laurie McNamara responded to a call about Father Lams’ time at the parish by saying: “I’m not answering your questions.” 

In an email to the Herald Bishop Santos confirmed Father Lams touched girls on the leg during confession, but said it was after they “mentioned a particular sin that was serious… to stress that they should not be doing such a thing”.

“What Father Neil did was definitely NOT a form of sexual abuse or harassment but rather an imprudent or inappropriate behaviour done without malice,” Bishop Santos said.

“He definitely did not caress their thighs to get some personal satisfaction.”