MP warned bishop about paedophile priest: inquiry

WARNING: Former state MP John Hatton wrote to  the church  years before it acted.
WARNING: Former state MP John Hatton wrote to the church years before it acted.

FORMER state MP John Hatton wrote more than 25 years ago to the then Archbishop of Sydney, Edward Clancy, to bluntly raise allegations of Father Denis McAlinden’s ‘‘sexual misbehaviour’’ with children and urge they be independently assessed.

Mr Hatton, then the independent MP for South Coast, wrote to the archbishop in May 1987 about the ‘‘extremely delicate matter which has come my way and which I believe should be handled within the church’’ .

The letter was among documents recently released by the Special Commission of Inquiry, which is examining the conduct of police and Catholic Church in response to the offending by two priests.

James Fletcher, who died in jail in 2006, was convicted of abusing an altar boy, although other victims came forward.

McAlinden, who died in late 2005, is suspected of abusing possibly hundreds of young girls.

Mr Hatton, who is credited with forcing the Wood Royal Commission into the NSW Police Force, told Archbishop Clancy that he was aware of a complaint made against McAlinden in 1976.

An investigation resulted in McAlinden being transferred out of the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese. But he later returned, and in 1987 was based in Adamstown, Mr Hatton wrote.

‘‘There have been several complaints about his behaviour with young children and there exists a great deal of concern at his continuing access to young people,’’ Mr Hatton wrote.

People were reluctant to come forward, fearing suppression or ‘‘retaliatory action within the church structure’’, or defamation action.

If they could be assured they would not be victimised, they would ‘‘speak out frankly’’ and provide evidence, Archbishop Clancy was told.

‘‘As you can see, it is a problem of great worry to me and only after considerable thought have I decided to bring it to your attention, on a strictly confidential basis, to avoid any injustice and to avoid any reflection upon the church,’’ Mr Hatton wrote.

He urged Archbishop Clancy, the predecessor to Cardinal George Pell who was himself later made a Cardinal, to appoint an envoy from outside the diocese to ‘‘give an independent evaluation directly to you’’.

‘‘How it is handled from then on, of course, is a matter for yourself but your direct intervention, even at a confidential level, would ensure that the problem cannot be in any way masked or avoided from within the diocese and a permanent and satisfactory solution found.’’

Approached yesterday, Mr Hatton said he would like to comment but could not as he was forbidden from discussing ‘‘the evidence I have given to the commission’’.

A number of witnesses have been called to give evidence in closed hearings, which counsel assisting the inquiry Julia Lonergan, SC, said at its outset was due to ongoing police investigations into the alleged concealment of child abuse offences.

As the inquiry has heard, it was not until 1993 – six years after Mr Hatton’s letter– that officials in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese began the process of attempting to ‘‘defrock’’ McAlinden, following a complaint from two victims.

Mark Cohen, barrister for Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, whose public comments triggered the inquiry, said yesterday the diocese ‘‘simply overlooked" 25 years of McAlinden’s offending ‘‘in the interest of avoiding scandal’’.

Mr Cohen told Commissioner Margaret Cunneen, SC, the church had moved McAlinden around almost constantly, from diocese to diocese, to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, from the 1960s to 1990s, to ensure he was ‘‘kept out of the way’’.

In 1971, it was noted he had left Papua New Guinea after being ‘‘rough with the native people’’.

In 1975, he was ‘‘run out of town again’’ from Forster-Tuncurry ‘‘by angry parents’’.

‘‘There must have been an understanding that this man was a big problem,’’ Mr Cohen said.

At the very least, the diocese showed ‘‘benign neglect’’ but really it was ‘‘wilful blindness’’.

The inquiry is expected to hear closing submissions today from the diocese.