Francis Sullivan says the Australian Catholic Church must take responsibility for offenders sent overseas

THE Australian Catholic Church needs to “deal with” the legacy issues of transferring child sex offenders overseas for decades, says the man who steered the church through the Australian child abuse royal commission, Francis Sullivan.

“This is certainly an issue the church leadership in Australia needs to respond to and deal with,” the outgoing chief executive of the Truth Justice and Healing Council said a week before the council is disbanded.

“The sexual abuse of any child anywhere is an abomination and when the perpetrator is a Catholic religious or priest then the Catholic Church needs to take responsibility,” Mr Sullivan said.

“Survivors of abuse in Papua New Guinea or any other overseas jurisdiction by offenders sent to those places by Australian Church authorities should be treated in the same way as survivors abused in Australia.”

His comments came as Papua New Guinea police commander Andrew Weda said on Tuesday he would meet this week with police who have completed an investigation into “touching” allegations against Australian Vincentian priest Neil Lams while chaplain to a school. 

The allegations were reported to police after Vincentian Bishop of Alotau-Sideia, Rolando Santos, issued a statement in September saying accusations raised in some of more than 20 student statements involved “inappropriate behaviour” but were “not that serious”. Father Lams was ordained in Australia in 2011 and volunteered to work overseas. In an email Father Lams said he was “not guilty of any criminal activity in any way”.

Mr Sullivan’s comments follow a challenge by Hunter survivors of abuse to church leaders last week over the “unfinished business” of crimes by Australian church offenders overseas, including notorious Maitland-Newcastle paedophile priest Denis McAlinden in countries including Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and the Philippines.

This is certainly an issue the church leadership in Australia needs to respond to and deal with.

Truth Justice and Healing Council chief executive Francis Sullivan

Hunter McAlinden survivor Anthea Halpin and survivor advocate Peter Gogarty called for an audit of all priests and religious sent to overseas missions to identify those where child sex allegations were made either in Australia or overseas.

Philippines ambassador to New Zealand, Jesus ‘Gary’ Domingo, said his country owed Mrs Halpin a “debt of gratitude” for forcing the Catholic Church to remove McAlinden from the Philippines in 1995 after he “retired” and spent at least 14 months, with church knowledge, living near a school with 7500 children.

The NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into church management of McAlinden and Hunter child sex offender priest Jim Fletcher found Maitland-Newcastle diocese sent McAlinden to Papua New Guinea for extended periods of up to five years between 1960 and 1981 after serious allegations were raised in Australia.

The inquiry also found there were “undoubtedly” other McAlinden victims in countries including the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Ireland and England.

Mrs Halpin said the church was called to account in Australia through the royal commission process but had “an even greater moral responsibility to victims in developing countries who are still suffering in silence”.

Mr Sullivan said Australian church leaders had to, “at the very least, put in place clear policies and procedures to respond to overseas survivors with compassion and justice”.

Port Stephens woman Wendy Stein, who has clashed with Bishop Santos while running a Rotary-sponsored family planning project in Papua New Guinea, reported allegations about Father Neil Lams to police after teachers and other community members raised concerns with her.

She backed Mrs Halpin’s view that the Catholic Church had a greater moral responsibility for vulnerable people in developing countries because church men were “seen as Gods and as the pillars of the church”.

“Fire and brimstone is still used to threaten and silence victims,” Ms Stein said.

“The Catholic Church has not learnt any lessons of the past if it continues to deny responsibility for the actions of its representatives overseas,” she said.

“By sending priests to developing countries where they think no one is watching they are doing what they have always done, despite the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.”

Mr Gogarty said he remained particularly concerned about victims in developing countries “where faith in the Catholic Church has rarely been questioned – much less shaken”.

Mr Gogarty wrote to the Truth Justice and Healing Council and the Apostolic Nuncio to Australia asking whether the church, either locally or internationally, had ever done anything to find victims resulting from Denis McAlinden’s years spent in PNG and the Philippines.

The question was important because “it goes to the credibility of Catholic Church assertions that it has learnt its lesson and that it will care for the victims it created”, he said.

“We have heard ‘sorry’ so many times, we have heard that things have changed, but we have still seen precious little evidence that the church is genuinely concerned for the life-long needs of tens of thousands of lives damaged or lost as a direct result of its policies of indifference and self-interest,” Mr Gogarty said.