CARDINAL George Pell has been excluded from blame by Melbourne’s Archbishop Denis Hart for the clergy’s “terrible failure” in dealing with an abusive parish priest at Holy Family Parish in Doveton.
At a Royal Commission hearing into institutions’ response to child sex abuse on 30 November, Mr Hart criticised his predecessor Archbishop Frank Little and Vicars-General for not sooner removing a “just mad, psychotic” Father Peter Searson from the parish.
Father Searson presided over the parish in 1984-97 despite senior clergy and the Catholic Education Office receiving numerous complaints from the school principal, teachers, parents and pupils, the hearing at the County Court was told.
The claims included allegedly molesting and striking children, pointing a hand gun at child cleaners, flinging a cat by its tail to its death, killing a baby bird with a screwdriver and showing children a dead body in a coffin.
The Melbourne Archdiocese showed a “complete failure of process as to the handling of the complaints”, Archbishop Hart said.
“There was such a respect that only the Archbishop could act, that this introduced a paralysis.”
He said the paralysis extended from Archbishop Little to those advising him at the time of Father Searson’s reign of terror.
“There was information coming in from Allan Dooley, the director of (Catholic) education (who) was meeting with the Archbishop.
“These things were being presented again and again and again, and nothing was happening.”
Cardinal Pell was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of the region, including Doveton, in 1987 – and held talks with four concerned school staff about Father Searson two years later.
While under questioning from counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Archbishop Hart “excluded” Cardinal Pell from blame.
“Well, I think as Archbishop he instituted the Melbourne Response and really made big changes.
“I have no knowledge of what he or another Auxiliary Bishop in Archbishop Little’s time – as what we’d say … how hard they knocked on the door.”
He later said he would have expected then-Auxiliary Bishop Pell to know what was happening in Doveton.
“I would have expected him to have an adequate degree of knowledge; whether he knew all these awful things, which make me feel ashamed, I’m not sure.
“Well, he’d have to explain what he did and didn’t know, but there was a complete failure of process.”
Archbishop Hart was questioned why his statement to the Royal Commission catalogued complaints made about Father Searson but didn’t mention a delegation of Holy Family staff meeting Auxiliary Bishop Pell in 1989.
“Well, I’d say that’s just an omission that’s all.
“Inadvertent, yes. I have no brief for playing down the evil of this situation; it just went on and on and on and people were placed in great danger.”
When asked about Father Searson showing a dead body in a coffin to a group of children, Archbishop Hart said: “Just mad, psychotic … he shouldn’t have been there.”
As Auxiliary Bishop, Hart “would have gone to the Archbishop also and asked to say that ‘you’ve got to get him out of the place straight away’, he told the hearing.
Then-Auxiliary Bishop Pell, on the other hand, “indicated that he thought all he could do was to pass the information on to the Vicar-General (Bishop Peter Connors)”, according to a Catholic Education Office memo.
“I would have been, to use His Honour’s phrase, knocking heavily at the door,” Archbishop Hart said.
He described his predecessor Archbishop Little’s approach as tending to “push the complaint away”.
“I’d have to say that Archbishop Little didn’t like confrontation and, therefore, the thought of forcing a man out from an appointment might force him to leave the priesthood and that, he found, terribly distasteful.”
In 1997, Father Searson was finally removed as priest, put on administrative leave and charged with unlawful assault after a complaint of him hitting an altar boy.
He was released without conviction on a good behaviour bond.
He died in 2009.
The Royal Commission continues.
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