BISHOP'S LETTER: Diocese defends handling of abuse

CATHOLIC congregations in the Hunter were read a letter from their bishop yesterday defending the way the church  deals with  child sexual abuse at the hands of priests.

The letter,  by the Bishop of the Newcastle-Maitland diocese, Bill Wright, was also posted on the diocese’s website on Friday.

A   spokeswoman said the letter was written before Premier Barry O’Farrell’s Friday afternoon announcement of an inquiry into aspects of the controversy.

It was distributed with instructions  to be read at yesterday’s services but the spokeswoman could not say whether it was read out at every church. In his letter, Bishop Wright referred to  a Newcastle Herald  article of last Thursday that accompanied an opinion piece by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, in which he called on the premier to establish a royal commission into sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

Bishop Wright told parishioners in his letter that ‘‘the Newcastle Herald did not offer the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle an opportunity to respond before printing such damning allegations’’.

‘‘As comments on the present practices of this diocese, these allegations, made in the present tense, are not true,’’ Bishop Wright’s parishioners heard. ‘‘The diocese reports all allegations of criminal conduct to the police, whether or not the person making the complaint wishes to have contact with police themselves. The diocese reports all complaints of reportable conduct to the Ombudsman.

‘‘As to silencing victims, the settlements made with victims of abuse in no way limit their freedom to speak of what happened to them if they wish to do so. The Church’s official protocols for these matters, the Towards Healing protocols, in fact stipulate that there must not be any such confidentiality clauses.

‘‘As to hindering police investigations, the diocese has supplied any and all information requested by the police on these matters. If we are investigating any matter ourselves before the police commence an investigation, we suspend our inquiry so as not to get in the way of police work.’’

The letter went on to say that the police had been contacting the church’s specialist child protection unit, Zimmerman Services, seeking ‘‘our help and assistance to victims’’.

‘‘I believe the Newcastle Herald knows these facts but chooses not to report them,’’ Bishop Wright said.

‘‘I have no problem with the Herald campaigning for a royal commission, because that is a matter for the community and its representatives to determine by debate in the public domain.

‘‘I do not, however, think it is legitimate to lend urgency to the case for a royal commission by misrepresenting the present situation or the present practices of the church in NSW.’’

Salt Ash man Rob Lipari, the victim of a Christian Brothers priest in Sydney in the 1970s,  said the letter was similar to statements made in recent days by Australia’s most senior Catholic clerk, Archbishop George Pell.

Mr Lipari said the church was trying to ‘‘draw a line in the sand’’ saying that ‘‘everything before then is historical and best left in the past’’.

Mr Lipari said ‘‘line by line’’, the statement by Bishop Wright might be ‘‘factually correct’’ but it was ‘‘lacking context’’.

‘‘He says those who have settlements with the church are free to speak out and, except for the amount of money involved, he is right,’’ Mr Lipari said.

‘‘But what he doesn’t say is how hard they fight you to not get to that settlement.’’

THIS IS THE BISHOP'S LETTER, IN FULL, COPIED FROM THE DIOCESE WEBSITE: 

 ‘‘Statement from Bishop Bill Wright Re: Allegations made by Peter Fox in the Newcastle Herald

Friday 09/11/2012"

Last Thursday, November 8, 2012, The Newcastle Herald published an article entitled "Top cop attacks church - Detective's letter alleges sex abuse cover-up". The Herald also printed an open letter to NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell written by the same officer, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, headed "Don't block your ears to abuse, Mr Premier".

The article, "Top cop attacks church" begins by saying "The Catholic Church covers up the crimes of paedophile priests, silences victims and hinders police investigations, one of the Hunter's most experienced detectives alleges in a letter to Premier Barry O'Farrell in the Newcastle Herald today," (Newcastle Herald, Thursday November 8, 2012).

The Newcastle Herald did not offer the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle an opportunity to respond before printing such damning allegations. As comments on the present practices of this diocese, these allegations, made in the present tense, are not true.

The diocese reports all allegations of criminal conduct to the Police, whether or not the person making the complaint wishes to have contact with Police themselves. The diocese reports all complaints of reportable conduct to the Ombudsman.

As to silencing victims, the settlements made with victims of abuse in no way limit their freedom to speak of what happened to them if they wish to do so. The Church's official protocols for these matters, the Towards Healing protocols, in fact stipulate that there must not be any such confidentiality clauses.

As to hindering Police investigations, the diocese has supplied any and all information requested by the Police on these matters. If we are investigating any matter ourselves before the Police commence an investigation, we suspend our inquiry so as not to get in the way of police work.

Child sexual abuse is an abhorrent crime; it is shameful and shocking that a crime so contrary to the message of Christ could ever be perpetrated by someone associated with the church. Nevertheless, the diocese has acknowledged repeatedly that such crimes have been committed. The diocese has acknowledged that in the past the phenomenon of paedophilia was poorly understood and that our responses to it were often woefully inadequate. These things have been acknowledged, and apologies have been made, repeatedly, by my predecessor as bishop, by the Australian bishops, by the Pope himself in Sydney.

Sexual abuse of children is considered abhorrent to all decent people. Probing into these matters for years on end must, therefore, take a terrible toll on the police officers engaged with these matters. I myself have listened to the stories of many who have been abused, read the transcripts of evidence, looked into the faces. I get angry. While my heart goes out to those who suffered abuse, I am filled with contempt and rage against those who so betrayed the ideals of Christianity and the sacred offices that they held. I can appreciate the anger and frustration that must build up in a dedicated Police officer like Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox. That anger and frustration, however, does not entitle him to remain unchallenged when he makes statements about the present day situation that are simply not correct.

A further aspect of the present practice of the diocese is its commitment to assisting victims of abuse. We provide a range of individualised support for people who have been affected by sexual abuse within the diocese. We employ a Co-ordinator of Healing and Support specifically to work with individuals adversely affected by child sexual assault perpetrated by personnel of the diocese, to support and promote their personal and unique journey towards healing.

As a matter of fact, over the past few years the Police themselves have been contacting Zimmerman Services (the diocese's specialist child protection unit), seeking our support and assistance to victims who have just come forward. Police ask the diocese to arrange support for these victims through the criminal justice process, in giving evidence, or even when they are witnesses in a criminal trial. That is a clear and obvious example of the care provided to those who have been harmed and of the cooperation that now exists between the diocese and Police. It was not always so, but that's how it is now.

I believe the Newcastle Herald knows these facts but chooses not to report them.

I have no problem with the Herald campaigning for a Royal Commission, because that is a matter for the community and its representatives to determine by debate in the public domain. I do not, however, think it is legitimate to lend urgency to the case for a Royal Commission by misrepresenting the present situation or the present practices of the church in NSW.

The diocese has publicly acknowledged its particularly troubled history regarding the sexual abuse of children. This history has caused and continues to cause pain to the victims of abuse, their families and the broader faith community. Moreover, we recognise that while the crimes may be historic, for many people the pain is ever present.

I wish to again assure the whole community of our commitment to doing what we can to redress past wrongs. We cannot change the past but we will continue to honestly and earnestly admit to our failings and work with all those who come to us.

The diocese will continue to:

* Welcome and listen to all those who wish to make their stories known to us, to seek acknowledgement of wrongs done to them, or to gain help with their journey to healing;

* Co-operate fully with Police investigations;

* Work closely with the NSW Ombudsman and the Commission for Children and Young People to ensure appropriate statutory oversight of the diocese's child protection services continues;

* Require all diocesan personnel to maintain contemporary knowledge of child protection standards and their responsibilities to report issues of concern promptly;

* Offer ongoing support to those who have been harmed and explore new ways to promote healing;

* Meet its moral and legal obligations to protect the children of the diocese from abuse, and

* Address the enduring legacy of historic child sexual assault that occurred within the diocese.

You can contact Zimmerman Services by phone (02) 4979 1390 or find out more by visiting the Zimmerman Services page.

 Bishop Bill Wright

Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

Friday 9 November, 2012

THE FOLLOWING IS A RESPONSE TO THE BISHOP'S LETTER BY HERALD REPORTER JOANNE MCCARTHY: 

SIX years ago last June I wrote my first article in the Newcastle Herald about the Catholic Church and sexual crimes against children.

It was prompted by a phone call with a request.

Could the Herald publish the truth about a Maitland-Newcastle priest who had been convicted of child sex crimes in 2000, but whose crimes had not been reported in the media?

So I did.

More than six years later, and on the day NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced a commission of inquiry into aspects of the child sex crisis, Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright issued a highly critical statement about this newspaper and, by default, me.

It was in response to Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox’s letter in the Herald saying ‘‘The Catholic Church covers up the crimes of paedophile priests, silences victims and hinders police investigations’’.

Bishop Wright criticised this newspaper for not offering the diocese an opportunity to respond ‘‘before printing such damning allegations’’.

‘‘As comments on the present practices of this diocese, these allegations, made in the present tense, are not true,’’ he wrote.

Mr Fox, by the way, was referring to the whole church, not the Maitland-Newcastle diocese, with those comments. 

So the issue here is truth. But it’s also about history.

I accept that Maitland-Newcastle diocese leads the Catholic Church in Australia in its response to the child sexual abuse crisis.

But that’s because Hunter police have led the Australian police response to church prosecutions, and the Herald has led the media in reporting on the issue.

Without police and this newspaper, is anyone seriously suggesting the diocese would have reached this point on its own?

This is the diocese that in 1995 tried to secretly push paedophile priest Denis McAlinden out of the church with his ‘‘good name protected’’, in full knowledge of his crimes, within days of paedophile priest Vince Ryan being charged.

Former Bishop Michael Malone conceded the need for police and the media to confront the church, admitting ‘‘I stuffed up’’ in an article on July 26, 2008.

Herald articles had ‘‘brought me to the point of honesty and transparency with myself and with these situations’’, he said.

But what about now? Bishop Wright argues the child sex crisis is history, and takes great exception to the idea that his diocese ‘‘silences victims’’.

But you don’t have to threaten, intimidate or bully someone to silence them. Not telling the truth in public about clergy who have gone to their graves has the same outcome.

On September 15 this newspaper published a list of Catholic clergy and teachers under the heading ‘‘60 years of shame’’. A priest named Terry Sylvester did not appear, despite evidence of a sexual assault incident involving a nun.

I was later contacted by a woman wanting to know why his name was not included, and giving details of how he sexually assaulted her in the late 1980s. I spoke with another woman about an incident with the priest in 1967.

I contacted the diocese to find out the truth about Terry Sylvester, after an item in the September issue of Aurora magazine criticised the media for implying ‘‘the diocese’s current conduct’’ supported the ‘‘cover-up of abuse’’.

I asked for diocese help to establish the truth about Father Sylvester, because a woman had suffered in silence for many years. 

The diocese had investigated an allegation that ran counter to the priest’s ‘‘good name’’ at his death, and a more truthful public account would help the woman who phoned me. There may be others, but who would know?

The last email I had from the diocese on this subject was on October 26. Then silence.

So, no. I did not contact Bishop Wright about allegations raised about the Catholic Church – but not Maitland-Newcastle diocese – last week.

But I am more than happy to meet with Bishop Wright to talk about the truth, history, and the public record.

- Joanne McCarthy

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