THE Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese has issued an unprecedented statement acknowledging the victims of a priest who was a serial child molester and apologising for his actions and "any instances of abuse by church personnel of people in its care".
The statement issued yesterday is the first public confirmation from the church that the late Father Denis McAlinden named by The Herald last week as a child predator for decades had multiple victims who suffered "distress and lifelong impact" from his actions.
The statement, which acknowledged "all victims of abuse by church personnel", also said that the diocese "has been co-operating fully with the authorities regarding Father McAlinden for some time".
Father McAlinden, who abused children from 1949, was denied the right to be a priest in the Hunter in the late 1980s but was never reported to police by the church.
The diocese has confirmed the priest had many victims, and that most were not known to the church until The Herald named him last week and revealed he was wanted by police for alleged child sex offences at the time of his death in 2005.
The diocese was contacted by a number of victims. The Herald is aware of at least another 10 victims after receiving calls this week.
Serious concerns have been expressed about the priest's contact with a migrant centre at Greta in the 1950s, Aboriginal communities in Western Australia in the 1980s and 1990s, and visits he made to New Guinea in the 1970s.
"The church first apologised unreservedly to victims of abuse in 1996 and continues to be deeply apologetic for any instances of abuse by church personnel of people in its care," diocese child protection and professional conduct unit manager Helen Keevers said in the statement on behalf of the diocese and Bishop Michael Malone.
"The distress and lifelong impact of Father McAlinden's actions on all those affected has not been publicly acknowledged until now.
"However, the diocese has been co-operating fully with the authorities regarding Father McAlinden for some time."
Bishop Michael Malone, who is on leave, said in the statement that the diocese had "learnt from bitter experience that there was no room in our church structures for anyone who might intend to cause harm to children".
A prominent Hunter businesswoman who was a victim of Father McAlinden in the 1960s when she was 11, said the diocese's acknowledgement of the priest as a child sex offender and its apology was "like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders".
The woman and her younger sister, and a childhood friend and her younger sister, were victims of the priest, she said.
The head of Australia's bishops, former Maitland-Newcastle vicar general Archbishop Philip Wilson, confirmed in a statement on Thursday that he was aware of concerns about Father McAlinden in 1985.
He travelled to an Upper Hunter parish at the request of the late Bishop Leo Clarke to "talk to the school authorities after they raised concerns about Father McAlinden".
The Herald detailed last week the attempts by then school principal Mike Stanwell to protect children. This included a meeting with Bishop Clarke, another with then Vicar General Wilson, and discussions with teachers at other schools.
In his statement, Archbishop Wilson said he "invited anyone at the school who was worried to come forward and speak to me".
He said one woman "expressed concern her daughter had been abused" but declined to report her concerns to police or to make a formal statement to the church.
In his statement, Archbishop Wilson said he reported the matter to Bishop Clarke.
A spokeswoman for the Archbishop said he was "too busy" to be interviewed about how the church handled Father McAlinden after abuse concerns were raised with him and passed on to Bishop Clarke.
"That's all we really want to say at this stage," the spokeswoman said. She referred any questions to the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.
Bishop Leo Clarke stripped Father McAlinden of his faculties in the late 1980s, denying him the right to act as a priest in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese.
But the action did not stop the priest from travelling to Western Australia, where he worked in the small inland farming town of Kojonup, four hours south-west of Perth, in the early 1990s, where he is alleged to have molested a girl aged 10.
Bishop Clarke is also believed to have attempted to laicise Father McAlinden, or remove him from the priesthood altogether in a process involving the Vatican, some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
The priest left Australia for Ireland in 1999 at the same time that police started investigating the allegation that he had sexual intercourse with an 11-year-old girl in the Lower Hunter in the 1950s or early 1960s.
In 2001, police received another complaint about the priest molesting a girl aged between seven and 12 in the Newcastle area in the 1970s.
The Maitland-Newcastle diocese contacted police in October 2005, one month before the priest died of cancer at a Catholic Church-run facility in Subiaco, Perth.
Western Australian police visited the priest on behalf of NSW Police to confirm that Father McAlinden was terminally ill and close to death.
Ms Keevers, who manages the diocese's Zimmerman House for victims of abuse, said the church could not promise to heal people who had been hurt by priests.
"Put simply, we 'walk with' survivors for as long as it takes, providing whatever support they need at the time they need it," she said.
STATEMENT by Helen Keevers, manager Zimmerman House, October 5, 2007
The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle acknowledges all victims of abuse by church personnel, including those of Fr Denis McAlinden. The Church first apologised unreservedly to victims of abuse in 1996 and continues to be deeply apologetic for any instances of abuse by church personnel of people in its care.
The distress and lifelong impact of Fr McAlinden¿s actions on all those affected has not been publicly acknowledged until now. However, the diocese has been cooperating fully with the authorities regarding Fr McAlinden for some time.
Bishop Michael Malone established the Diocesan Child Protection and Professional Conduct Unit in 2005. In his homily at the opening of the Unit, Bishop Michael recognised that, "In this Diocese we have had some very serious episodes of abuse - there must be no more!"
The Unit responds openly to all allegations of abuse and strives to offer all affected parties support and natural justice through providing the structures needed to comply with relevant child protection legislation.
In September this year the Unit was incorporated in Zimmerman House, a Church initiative reaching out to victims which aims to facilitate healing for individuals and communities affected by abuse within the Church. All victims of abuse by Church personnel are strongly encouraged to come forward, and are assured of the professional, compassionate and sensitive support available at Zimmerman House.
Staff at Zimmerman House understand how difficult it can be for survivors of abuse to tell their story, particularly if they feel that they are unable to trust the Church. Zimmerman House is an autonomous service. Survivors can make contact with the staff through an intermediary if they wish.
Experience in working with survivors of abuse tells us that this is something from which they will never completely heal. We cannot promise to heal ¿ our mission at Zimmerman House is to listen to those affected and be guided by them with regard to their needs for ongoing support.
Put simply, we "walk with" survivors for as long as it takes, providing whatever support they need, at the time they need it.
In the words of Bishop Michael, "There is no room in our church structures for anyone who might intend to cause harm to children or abuse a relationship of professional trust. In fact, a true measure of a community is the way it cares for and includes those who are most vulnerable, especially the young and the old."
The Diocesan Support Line can be reached on 1800 234 050.
- Helen Keevers, manager Zimmerman House, October 5, 2007
STATEMENT by Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson, October 4, 2007
"In 1985 when I was secretary of the Diocese of Maitland and Newcastle, I was asked by the Bishop to go to Merriwa and talk to the school authorities after they raised concerns about Father McAlinden.
"I invited anyone at the school who was worried to come forward and speak to me. One woman expressed concern her daughter had been abused. I treated her account with the utmost eriousness and asked her to report her concerns to the police, but she decided not to do so or to make a formal statement to the Church.
"I reported this outcome to the Bishop.
"The Church has always urged people to report such complaints to the police as the highest priority, and it continues to do so. In addition, the Towards Healing protocol has since been developed to provide a framework for responding to complaints of abuse by Church personnel with justice and compassion.
"I have personally always acted according to the due processes in place and with the deepest concern for anybody who may have been abused"
- Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson, October 4, 2007
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