The release of the report of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, headed by Margaret Cunneen SC, into certain matters of child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is an event of very great significance, not only to this diocese, but to the broader church and nation. Originally called to inquire into the conduct of police investigations into these matters and into the church’s role in helping or hindering those investigations, the Commission has ultimately also shed a great deal of light on the diocese’s knowledge and handling of the abuse perpetrated by Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher.
The appalling but inescapable conclusion of this Inquiry is that senior officials of the diocese, including former bishops, had various degrees of knowledge of the paedophile behaviour of McAlinden over several decades but failed to report his crimes to police and failed to prevent, by internal procedures, his going on to abuse more children. In relation to knowledge that officials of the diocese may have had of Fletcher’s abuse prior to Bishop Malone’s time, the Commission has received certain evidence that it has reserved to the fourth, confidential, volume of the Report. It has also been critical, as a separate matter, of Bishop Malone’s handling of the first allegations against Fletcher that came to him in his early years as bishop.
I have previously made a detailed response to the Cunneen Report, including in my open letter of 30 May and during the press conference of 3 June. Since the press conference I have held a series of open forums across the diocese, to provide the people an opportunity to ask questions or make comment as to the Cunneen Report and its findings. In most of these forums the question of “What happens next to Fr Burston and Mons Hart?” arises. I’ve also been told that some people in the diocese believe that “Nothing’s happening – it’s business as usual” because the men were asked to stand aside from any diocesan roles but have remained in parish ministry. On the evening of 17 June, the Right Honourable Barry O’Farrell MLA stated this view in a speech to Parliament:
Bishop Wright simply stood him [Mons Hart] aside from advisory positions in the diocese. As a response to such a damning inquiry it was completely underwhelming—more a sign of spin than a response to the grave sins of omission.
There are two aspects to these types of comment which I need to address; the more significant issue of establishing and conducting a procedurally fair process for determining just and reasonable outcomes relating to the future of two priests’ ministry, and the interim decision that they remain in parish ministry, while the aforementioned process is carried out.
As part of Commissioner Cunneen’s report, Mons Hart was considered for referral to the Director of Public Prosecutions for criminal charges, however it was found that there was “insufficient evidence warranting the prosecution of Hart in relation to any failure by him to report to the police the offending by McAlinden” and that “the prosecution would be unlikely to be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt the absence of reasonable excuse”. Fr Burston was not considered for criminal charges. As there appears to be no prospect of either man facing criminal charges, the question then becomes one of translating Commissioner Cunneen’s adverse findings from a strictly legalistic framework into a holistic and moral understanding of the potential consequences for Fr Burston’s and Mons Hart’s ongoing ministry. In recognition of the seriousness of these circumstances and to protect the integrity of the process, Fr Burston and Mons Hart were asked to stand aside from any diocesan roles, which they did immediately.
I know that some people have already achieved a crystalline clarity in relation to these matters. One view has been publicly promoted in a number of forums. This position argues that there is no need for further deliberations, both men have been the subject of adverse findings by Commissioner Cunneen and consequently should be stood aside from all public ministries immediately and made to retire or resign from all their roles or positions in the diocese. Anything less demonstrates a failure in leadership. The alternative view has been expressed to me by a number of laity within the diocese. It is not promoted publicly by those people stating it, but is put with equal conviction and earnestness by its exponents. This position argues that both men have dedicated most of their lives in the service of this diocese and our Catholic faith and their conduct in front of the Special Commission when weighed up against their decades of service is insufficient cause to make them resign. Consequently the two men should be left in place to continue their ministry to the faithful in their parishes.
As Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle I will not concede to either view. In response to a question asked at the 3 June press conference, I said among other things that:
In regard to the two men that you mention [Burston and Hart], of whom the Commissioner has made some criticism, both in regard to their past involvement in things, but more particularly to the way in which they gave evidence or the character of that evidence, we will need as a diocese to take some time I think to consider exactly what those findings of the Commission are, what it is that they’re saying.
And nothing said since that time has changed my mind as to the importance of conducting a separate process to determine the appropriate outcomes for either man. Thankfully, this is the first Special Commission that the diocese and diocesan personnel have been the subject of and consequently there are no established structures in place appropriate to conduct this process. I am working towards establishing the Independent Review Panel to provide me with advice. The panel will include members drawn from both within and outside the diocese. The panel will be predominantly laity, I am seeking to achieve a gender balance and include a number of non-Catholics. In the coming weeks I will provide you with further details as to the process; through the diocesan website, in the following edition of Aurora and through parish and school bulletins.
It was my decision to leave Fr Burston and Mons Hart in parish ministry. I have made a judgement call based on a number of grounds; including particular consideration of the adverse consequences suffered by the faithful of the parishes that would be affected, should they be stood down. I can understand people who disagree with my decision and I respect their sincerity. It was not a decision taken without thought and prayer and I believe it is the most appropriate decision, in a situation where any choice I make will cause some level of distress to people within the diocese.
The process we have begun will be complex and require some time to complete. I ask for your patience and understanding as we work through this next stage of a very sad and hurtful exploration of the diocese’s terrible legacy of failing to protect children. Most of all I ask that you pray for those who were harmed; our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbours and work colleagues who have to deal with the consequences of abuse on a daily basis, so that they may find some healing and peace.
You can also read a statement in response to the Special Commission Report from Bishop Emeritus Michael Malone, which was published in the July Aurora.