A PAPUA New Guinea Catholic bishop says he will reinstate an Australian Vincentian priest to a PNG high school despite a police investigation of allegations involving school students, and a church investigation confirming the priest touched students’ legs and sometimes slapped them.
Bishop Rolando Santos said Australian Vincentian priest Neil Lams was “firm, upright and committed” and he was not changing the priest’s assignment as chaplain to the PNG school. The bishop reserved the right to take defamation action against people, including school teachers, who complained about the priest’s behaviour.
A church investigation report, which Bishop Santos supplied to the Newcastle Herald, found no evidence to support allegations Father Lams sexually abused two female students at a Catholic high school in eastern PNG.
But investigators for the PNG Catholic Church Office of Right Relationships in Ministry found evidence of confessional “incidents”, where Father Lams touched students on the legs and asked questions about sex that left students “embarrassed or scared or hurt or surprised”.
Investigators also accepted the priest sometimes slapped and hugged students and squeezed them on the cheeks, but rejected the actions were sexual.
The priest’s approach was “inappropriate when compared with the usual way a confession is conducted”, investigators found.
Father Lams told investigators the slapping and hugging was in “a playful, fun way. This is all innocent”.
Bishop Santos criticised Port Stephens woman Wendy Stein, who runs a family planning project in PNG supported by Australian Rotary, for reporting allegations to police in September following concerns about a Catholic Church investigation of the allegations against Father Lams that started in March.
In an email to the Herald Bishop Santos confirmed the police investigation. He said police did not object to Father Lams travelling to Rome with him this month to attend 400th anniversary celebrations relating to St Vincent de Paul, who founded the Vincentians.
Father Lams was ordained in Australia in 2011 and served short stints in Sydney, Melbourne and Townsville before requesting a missionary appointment.
It is the second church investigation of sexual abuse allegations against Father Lams in PNG after an allegation in 2016 involving a Port Moresby teenager.
The church investigation report relating to the high school heard evidence from students and teachers that Father Lams saw two female students at his house, “many times at restricted hours”.
The two students denied any sexual contact with the priest and said they helped clean the dishes and his house, while he offered them support.
One of the students described Father Lams as “a good, honest priest”.
Investigators criticised the priest for homilies by him during Sunday Mass after evidence they “pinpointed” teachers and could be construed as personal attacks.
“We conclude that there is some truth in this concern,” the investigators found.
The report recommended the priest reduce physical contact with students and asking “intrusive” questions during confessions, and observe school rules, “especially the boundaries between student and priest”.
In June the Vincentians released an interim child protection policy at the order’s St Stanislaus College at Bathurst during an apology to more than 160 former students who alleged they were sexually abused by Vincentian priests.
In the policy the order said it recognised “that there are a number of potential risks to children in the delivery of ministry within the Oceania Province”, which includes Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.
The interim policy includes that Vincentian representatives should “take responsibility for ensuring that I do not place myself in situations where there is a risk of allegations of child abuse being made”.
The policy also includes that Vincentians should not “smack, hit or physically assault any child”, and it was mandatory for any concerns about child sexual abuse to be reported to church representatives and civil authorities.
Oceania Province head Father Greg Brett, who delivered the apology to St Stanislaus students, was contacted for comment.