As Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, I have been asked to comment on matters surrounding a historic complaint of sexual harassment by Fr Terry Sylvester, a deceased priest of this diocese, against another adult. I have no first-hand knowledge of this matter, and I am unacquainted with any of the persons principally involved, but the following information has been derived from records held by the diocese.
As I understand it, the Newcastle Herald is asking me to comment in regard to a situation involving a person who has not given consent to the journalist for their story to be told to the public. I have asked the Herald to provide the person's consent, which would allow me to have a full and honest discussion of the events, but to date the only response I have been given is the suggestion that I am trying to hide behind privacy laws.
I acknowledge that news media have a vital role in informing the public. The diocese, however, is morally and legally constrained to protect an individual's right to privacy. It is my hope that in my attempts to provide The Herald with a sufficient response which in no way identifies the person involved, neither my comments nor The Herald's planned article will cause any distress to any persons involved in these matters.
The diocese can confirm that an investigation was conducted into a complaint against Fr Sylvester. That investigation occurred in 1998 directly after the complaint was made under the then recently introduced Towards Healing protocols. The complaint related to a pattern of verbal harassment and a single incident of physical harassment of a sexual nature, by Fr Sylvester, against an adult person that was alleged to have occurred in the late 1970s.
Through the NSW Professional Standards Office, an independent Sydney firm was engaged to investigate the allegation and submitted its report in July 1998. The report found "There is no evidence at this stage to prove or disprove the allegations made." The report also recommended that "Since abusive behaviour cannot, at this stage, be proved removal of Fr Sylvester from the ministry is not justified."
After a period during which the diocese continued to have contact with and support the person who made the complaint, that person requested a review of the original investigation. Michael Malone, then Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle agreed to this and in 2001 a second independent Sydney firm was engaged through the Professional Standards Office to review the original investigative process.
The review was completed in mid 2001 and it highlighted concerns that the incorrect burden of proof may have been used, in effect the criminal standard rather than the civil one. Based on the findings of this review, the same firm was engaged to conduct further inquiries and to produce a second report. The second investigation report, submitted in mid 2002, concluded that the complaint against Fr Sylvester was sustained on the balance of probabilities.
The diocese has no records of any earlier allegations made against Fr Sylvester. For the sake of full disclosure I will say that the person who made the complaint against Fr Sylvester reported a rumour that there were two other persons who had cause for complaint against Fr Sylvester. Both the first and second investigations made all possible efforts to pursue this lead. However neither investigation was able to find any other person who wished to bring forward a complaint.
A Newcastle Herald article of 25 September 2012, claimed that there are two other alleged victims of Fr Sylvester. It must be noted that whilst no names were mentioned, the two women in the article did give consent to the journalist for their story to be told. Until that report, however, the diocese was unaware of these persons. One of them, we now know, received counselling and support from a diocesan priest who, as the Newcastle Herald has acknowledged, encouraged that person to report their allegations and seek help but that person chose not to do so and directed the priest to maintain the person's confidentiality.
The reality is that it was accepted practice for professionals and people in helping vocations to respect the wishes of adults in regard to confidentiality. In the light of subsequent experience, however, and since such practice can be construed by some as the church's own decision to 'cover-up' abuse, I can confirm that it is now the policy and practice of the diocese to report all such allegations of abuse to Police, even when the victims are not prepared to take the matter to Police themselves.
I have met with a number of people who were abused by members of the diocese and I have sincerely expressed to them, as a man and as Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, my profound sorrow and regret that their innocence was lost and that those responsible to care and protect failed in their duty.
Through Zimmerman Services, the diocese has specialist support and assistance available to anybody who has been harmed by a member of the diocese, whether as a child or an adult as in this case and we remain ready to listen and to support them and their families.
If the two women from The Newcastle Herald article of 25 September 2012 wish to have contact with the diocese, I and the specialist staff at Zimmerman Services would be pleased to meet with them individually or together, with appropriate support people of their choice present and at an appropriate location of their choice. Indeed, the diocese continues to publicise its services and extends an open invitation but it does not have the right, nor would it try, to push its assistance upon anyone who does not wish it.
I believe the diocese undertook a thorough investigation of the allegations made by the person. The diocese engaged two independent firms to undertake rigorous investigative processes. All reasonable endeavours were used to collect the available evidence in relation to the allegation and to obtain information from other persons who might have had knowledge in relation to Fr Sylvester or the person who made the complaint.
The diocese may be criticised for not removing Fr Sylvester from ministry when the complaint against him was sustained in June 2002, as a punitive measure and one which might have afforded some consolation to his victim.
Today, ten years later, further action would be taken in regard to Fr Sylvester. The other view, which must have prevailed in 2002, would be that his continuance in ministry posed no likely risk to anyone, as the only known allegation against him related to matters that occurred 26 years previously and he was now aged 73. He reached retirement age two years later and died six months after that.
I am sincerely sorry that the person who made the complaint, and the two others of whom we are now aware, was harassed or abused by a priest of this diocese.
Disrespectful or abusive behaviour is simply never acceptable, whether it's between adults, as it was in this matter, or between adults and children.
Although it took two investigations to establish the truth, I am grateful that Bishop Malone was prepared to pursue the matter further when doubts were raised about the initial investigation.
Statement from Bishop Bill Wright,
Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle
Monday 12 November, 2012