Monday, 17 September 2012

Why the abuse scandal is not a beat up. Warning: I cried at this story

There is another of those truly awful stories about the abuse scandal in The Sydney Morning Herald today, dealing with the case of a Catholic school principal who list his career over his efforts to stop a paedophile priest in the mid-1980s.

A tale of horrors

The story has several horrible dimensions.

First because it was a case where a single parish had six paedophile priests in a row.

Secondly because despite the fact that the priest was behaving dangerously on several fronts (he allegedly embezzled money, wandered around carrying a gun, had been prohibited from hearing the confessions of children a fact not passed on to those who needed to know, and for a period lived with a fourteen year old girl in the presbytery), not only was nothing done, it was the teachers who complained about him who were forced out of their jobs.

Thirdly, and this the part that made me cry, the priest in question actually abused children in the course of confession.

Fourthly because not only were the original incidents covered up, but the subsequent investigation was so protracted and delayed that the investigator felt guilty enough to pay the former principal involved some $90,000 of financial assistance out of his own pocket!

Finally, because justice has still not been done in this case.

Pockets of paedophilia and homosexuality

Some have pointed to the overall figures on the proportion of priests who abused children to suggest that the incidence is much lower in the Church than more generally in society.

Even if that proves to be true when all of the cases are truly known (the weekend media for example claims there were 500 abuse cases in Geelong alone), the problem is the networks of paedophiles who operated in particular locations.

Maitland-Newcastle has long been viewed as the worst diocese in Australia, with something close to 10% of its priests at the height of reported cases in the 70s and 80s implicated.  And it seems the dioceses past obsession with ecumenism may have had a practical dimension: the Anglican diocese and seminary seminary seems also to have been a nest of vipers.

Then there is the Sydney Christian Brothers School  which at one time seems to have employed three paedophile teachers, one of whom had previously been jailed for child sexual assault!

Systemic failure

Today's story is particularly horrific because all the warning signs were there:

"...Searson was the last in a line of six sexual abusers - some violent - who arrived in Doveton parish after it was created in 1962: the first four were parish priests at the Holy Family church, plus an assistant and a locum - a remarkable misfortune for a parish regarded as one of the most disadvantaged in Melbourne."

When a previous abusing priest was removed, the school principal asked for a suitably pastoral replacement.  Instead, this is what he got:

"GRAEME Sleeman knew Peter Searson was trouble even before Searson arrived as parish priest of Doveton in 1984. Searson liked to dress in military fatigues, often carried a revolver, and had a bad reputation when it came to money - and sexually abusing children.  The two locked horns immediately when Sleeman, principal of the Holy Family school, told the priest he knew of his reputation and would be watching him, and Searson replied that as priest he was the boss."

No surprise in all of this given the nature of the Melbourne Archdiocese at the time (though how much it has since improved is debatable given the legacy of its notoroious seminary).  The school principal, Mr Sleeman, had actually tried his vocation as a priest:

"Sleeman, a big man who played semi-professional football, started as a Salesian novitiate at the Rupertswood school in Sunbury, where several serial abusers were based.

He left the order but later, feeling he had unfinished business with the church, became a seminarian, lasting only nine months because he didn't "fit the tea party conception" of priesthood and was uneasy about the homosexual activity of other seminarians there.

He became a bush footballer and principal at St Mary's in Sale. He arrived at Doveton in 1982, parachuted in by the CEO as a trouble shooter "because the Presentation nuns had walked out that morning after upheavals with the parish priest".

Abuse in confession

The thing I find most horrifying about this whole story though is that the priest concerned could use the sacrament of confession to carry out his crimes:

"Their main battleground was bizarre: the sacred Catholic sacrament of confession, where Searson could get the children alone and unsupervised.

"I was concerned about his addiction to confession," Sleeman recalls.

"Sometimes he would get children to sit on his lap, or kneel between his legs." Later he would help a church investigation into two sexual assaults during confession.

...From the start, Sleeman made sure at least one teacher was in the church when Searson took children for confession. He did not know what Searson later conceded to a reporter, that the priest arrived from Sunbury banned from being alone with children in the confessional.

One day a teacher brought him a nine-year-old girl who had rushed sobbing from the confessional. More than a decade later, she received compensation from the archdiocese for a serious sexual assault. Another pupil, also later compensated, told her mother Searson had interfered with her. Carmel Rafferty says police told her Searson was brilliant at persuading parents not to make formal complaints.

..."Searson got great strength because he got away with it, and he upped the ante about taking kids to the confessional. So we put in place a whole lot of things to guard against him,'' Sleeman says. ''There were always at least two staff inside the church, and we put in place a timetable for confession, but he ignored it. If he saw my car wasn't there he'd rush over to the school and grab a group [of children]."

Please pray for all those involved.


Robert said...

The same material was also in today's issue of The Age, so there is no excuse for Melbourne Catholics not to be acquainted with it.

A Canberra Observer said...

Is the abuser dead or in jail?

Beggars belief.

So much for SIR Frank Little.

A Canberra Observer said...

Thinking about your raising the issue of networks, involving contacts made in seminary and the natural, if misguided, tendancy to stick up for one's own 'team' - should the Church have independent reporting and investigation mechanisms. Like an audit and fraud control branch ?

Kate Edwards said...

Sadly neither - you can read more here:

Terry said...

When the confessional itself becomes an occasion for sin, you can't blame Catholics for not going to confession.

Louise said...

I don't think Catholics refrain from going to confession on the off-chance that they might be sexually abused, do you, Terry?

This is an horrendous story which does indeed beggar belief. I'm very glad if the victims can receive some justice, finally.

I think ordinary Catholics just get a bit fed up with the slurs against good Catholics and good priests and the definite lop-sidedness in media reporting, but it doesn't follow that we want these atrocities to continue and remain hidden.

Mrs Doyle said...

I find it interesting that post V2 architecture in church design actually promotes behaviour by removing the protective boundaries between priest and people.
Think of the old confessionals, absolutely brilliant two fold design, one to promote the spiritual sense that I am talking to my God, not the priest and the other physical separation which helps this idea and has a secondary safety effect.
Now, the confessionals are just ordinary rooms and many don't even have a glass see-through door.