Priests' evidence conflict: inquiry 

Monsignor John Usher outside the special inquiry hearing in Sydney on Monday. Picture: Ian Kirkwood
Monsignor John Usher outside the special inquiry hearing in Sydney on Monday. Picture: Ian Kirkwood

TWO senior Catholic priests who dealt with child sexual abuse by clergy in the 1980s and 1990s have given sometimes conflicting accounts of their experiences to the Special Commission of Inquiry sitting in Sydney yesterday.

About a dozen people travelled down from the Hunter to watch the single day of proceedings.

Monsignor John Usher was called to give evidence after being mentioned in the Newcastle sittings last month by his former  colleague, Father Brian Lucas, who said the two of them had worked together investigating some 35 paedophile priests.

Both priests now belong to the Archdiocese of Sydney and while Monsignor Usher agreed that he worked with Father Lucas on a "special issues" group – and later a formal committee – to tackle clergy abuse, he said the two of them had worked on only one joint investigation.

And while Father Lucas had previously said it was not his practice to keep written records of his investigations, Monsignor Usher said he usually did, and they were written up within a day or two of his meeting with accused priests or brothers.

The inquiry is looking into aspects of the Church and police response to allegations against two paedophile priests of the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese, the late Denis McAlinden and the late James Fletcher.

Yesterday’s hearing concentrated on the McAlinden investigation, and included new evidence in the form of an email conversation between Monsignor Usher and other senior personnel in the Sydney archdiocese, including media director Katrina Lee and Cardinal George Pell’s private secretary, Dr Michael Casey.

The email, made public along with Monsignor Usher’s statutory declaration to the commission, followed a statement to Parliament by Greens MLC David Shoebridge on June 14 last year.

In the email, Monsignor Usher said that Mr Shoebridge’s statement ‘‘omits many facts’’.

He outlined some basic information about the McAlinden case ‘‘as I understand it’’, concluding that ‘‘it seems to have nothing to do with the Archdiocese of Sydney’’.

Monsignor Usher told the hearing yesterday that he had never met McAlinden and had no recall of a meeting, at the Monte Pio convention centre at Maitland in 1993, that two people – a McAlinden victim and a religious sister, Paula Redgrove – told the commission took place with Monsignor Usher and Father Lucas present.

He said he had spoken to Father Lucas before writing the email of June 20, 2012, but was not able to recall the detail.

Monsignor Usher spent most of the day giving evidence before Father Lucas was recalled, briefly, late in the afternoon.

Father Lucas recalled three conversations with Monsignor Usher, one in 2010 after being emailed by Newcastle Herald reporter Joanne McCarthy,  another in relation to police strike force Lantle, and a third in the past month or two in relation to the  inquiry.

He could not recall a conversation with Monsignor Usher in relation to the June 2012 email.

Earlier, Monsignor Usher spoke of the effort he and others had put into warning the Church about "how serious" the paedophilia problem would become, and how helping victims was more important than protecting its reputation.

He said that "early on", most of the bishops believed, wrongly, that paedophile priests could be cured with spiritual forgiveness, which did not work with people driven by such "obsessive compulsive behaviour".

Statuary declaration highlights differing opinions 

A STATUTORY declaration made available after the close of yesterday’s Special Commission of Inquiry hearing throws light on evidence given by Monsignor John Usher.

It is only through reading this document, available in full here that Monsignor Usher’s differences of opinion with colleague Father Brian Lucas become clear.

Some of Monsignor Usher’s dozen or so comments on Father Lucas’s evidence are mostly matters of nuance rather than outright disagreement.

But he takes issue with an assertion by Father Lucas that the two of them short-circuited protocol in dealing with some offenders, saying: "I did not take shortcuts when dealing with allegations of sexual abuse."

He also objected to Father Lucas’s assertion that the two of them took the risk of "misprision of felony" when victims did not want their cases taken to the police, saying it was "not an accurate reflection of my practice at the time".