KIERAN TAPSELL. The Royal Commission Report on the Melbourne Archdiocese

On 5 December 2017, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released a redacted version of its Report of Case Study No. 35: the Archdiocese of Melbourne. It strongly criticized Church personnel for failure to protect children under its care. It blamed both the culture of secrecy and inadequate structures for the failure, and described those failures a number of times as “appalling.”

The Report was redacted so as not to prejudice current or future criminal or civil proceedings. An unredacted version of the report is expected to be tabled and published at a later date.

The Commission found that Archbishop Frank Little who headed the Archdiocese from 1974 to 1996: “dismissed or ignored serious allegations of child sexual abuse against a number of priests. He did not investigate the many allegations that were brought to his attention, and did not report them to the police. He also moved offending priests to other parishes where they continued to offend.” The Commission also found he allowed four abuser priests to resign for “ill health” or “stress”.

While Archbishop Little was the only one who had the authority to do something about these priests, many other Church personnel, including auxiliary bishops and vicar generals, knew of the allegations, failed to report them to the police, failed to recommend other protective remedies, and were actively involved in misleading the faithful about the reasons for the priests’ resignations. The Church continued to support these priests financially, and took steps to hide the fact that it was doing so.

The Commission found that there was a “prevailing culture of secrecy,” and that “complaints were dealt with in a way that sought to protect the Archdiocese from scandal and liability, and prioritised the interests of the Church over the victims.” It found that Church officials used euphemisms in their meetings to hide the fact that child sexual abuse was being discussed, that they kept inaccurate and incomplete records, and that “the purpose of not recording information was to protect the assets of the Archdiocese in the event of a claim being made against it.”

The Archdiocese had been advised by its lawyers that no privilege attaches to records of such meetings, and they could be used as evidence against the Church. Such advice was confirmed by Fr Brian Lucas, a civil lawyer, in a paper presented to the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand in 1996, the year of Little’s retirement. Lucas also stated: “There may be cases that appear to be so sensitive that it is in the best interests of the parties, or one of them, and of the Church, that the documents not be created in the first place.” Archbishop Little, his advisers and consultors had adopted this policy long before Fr Lucas put pen to paper.

The Commission also found that the Archdiocese had “dysfunctional systems, procedures and practices” that led to poor outcomes in responding to allegations. There were no effective checks and balances on the Archbishop’s sole right to deal with priests and that “a system for responding to complaints of child sexual abuse in which the exclusive authority for making decisions was vested in one person, is deeply flawed”.

The Commission does not discuss the historical reasons for this “culture of secrecy”, but is likely to do so in its final report. It has found that many other institutions covered up child sexual abuse to protect their reputations, but the Catholic Church is unique, because no other institution has imposed secrecy over child sexual abuse by writing it into its internal laws.

Three bishops, one of them a canon lawyer, and a priest canon lawyer gave evidence to the Commission. They were never questioned about the radical change to the Church’s tradition that took place in 1917 with the first Code of Canon Law, or even about the pontifical secret that is still imposed by canon law. Bishop Deakin spoke about “professional secrecy”, but he was never asked what he meant by that, or where it came from. Monsignor Murphy stated that he could not answer questions about canon law on reporting to the police prior to 1983 because his “studies” were under the 1983 Code. He was never asked about the secrecy laws still in force that do not form part of that Code.

A similar gap in the Commission’s inquiry occurred with Fr Ian Waters, a canon lawyer, who was asked to review a file on Fr Daniels and concluded that there was insufficient evidence of either a civil or canonical crime for any further action. The Church parties submitted, correctly, that Fr Waters could not be criticized if he was not called as a witness to explain his conclusion based on the information he had. Natural justice also applies to Royal Commissions. The Commission was left to conclude that if Waters had seen the evidence available to Monsignor Cudmore, it was not reasonable for him to conclude that the conduct alleged was ‘very tame’ or was unlikely to constitute criminal conduct.

The Commission also criticized the Vatican’s disciplinary system. Fr Michael Gannon was convicted of child sexual abuse offences in 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2009. An application was made to the Vatican by the Archdiocese for him to be dismissed from the priesthood. The Vatican declined because of his “advanced age and feebleness”. The Commission found he should have been dismissed. The Vatican’s decision was not consistent with its rhetoric about the Church practising “zero tolerance” over child sexual abuse. The inconsistency is still the case according to Marie Collins who resigned in protest from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. The Commission also criticized delays in dealing with applications for dismissal, as well as the Victorian Police for inadequate and insensitive investigation of complaints.

No doubt we will be hearing much more about the above issues in the Commission’s Final Report expected on 15 December 2017.

Kieran Tapsell is a retired civil lawyer and the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse and of a submission to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Canon Law, A Systemic Factor in Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. He was also a member of the canon law panel before the Australian Royal Commission Feb. 9, 2017.


Kieran Tapsell is a retired civil lawyer, author and translator.

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2 Responses to KIERAN TAPSELL. The Royal Commission Report on the Melbourne Archdiocese

  1. Just to follow up what I am getting at: Here is an exerpt from one of the witness statements at The Victorian Inquiry:

    Sipe explained sexual activity between an older priest and an adult seminarian or a younger priest sets up a pattern of institutional secrecy. When one of the parties rises to a position of power, his friends are also in line for recommendations and advancement. This dynamic, he says, is not limited to homosexual liaisons. Priests and bishops who know about each other’s sexual affairs with women are bound together by links of sacred silence. A system of blackmail reaches into the highest corridors of the hierarchy in the Vatican and thrives because of this network of sexual knowledge and relationships. It is this system of blackmail that is central to the response of bishops, archbishops and cardinals, locally and around the world, relocating paedophile and pederast priests. The bishop’s primary objective is to avoid scandal to mother church and to contain and silence victims, but if the bishop is compromised because he is known to be sexually active, the predatory cleric resorts to blackmail. As Father Searson, formerly a priest at a Doveton parish school in south–east Melbourne, brazenly disclosed to an editor of a Catholic magazine who challenged him about his predatory behaviour with children, ‘I am not worried about what the bishops might do to me because of what I know about the bishops’.

  2. Thanks again Keiran for your thoughtful review. You know my stance on the role of canon law and secrecy: Yes, the ‘law’ exists but I don’t believe it is the main cause of cover-ups and secrecy. The reason I no longer believe this is because I do not believe we are dealing with ‘good’ men, for whom following even canon laws was something they felt impelled by conscience to do. I believe that the culture of secrecy has more to do with an broad culture based on ‘priests in glass churches shouldn’t throw stones’. This is especially pertinent given that according to Richard Sipe, around 50% of clergy are sexually active, mostly with adults, but so many also knowing about each other’s sexual activity as well. The culture of Corpus Christi and Manly seminaries are prime examples of not just learning about becoming a priest but about each others sexual predilections, activities and foibles and whether such knowledge could be used at some stage in the future.This is the culture that Kevin Lee tried to expose. But because Lee was considered to be a homophobe and conservative, he and his contributions to the whole issue were written off, by liberal and conservative Catholics alike, but for different reasons.

    Regardless, like you and your perspective on Canon Law, I wish the Royal Commission would have questioned all witnesses about this aspect. It came close in the final public hearing with Dr Gerardine Taylor but because the issue was about clergy abuse or sexual activity with adults, the line of thought and questioning wasn’t really developed. As with your conclusion, I also hope that some mention of this ‘glass-church’-based culture of secrecy will be included. I wonder whether the 1917 canon law changes and those that followed were followed out of loyalty to church teachings, leading to a culture of secrecy based on noble Catholicism, or, whether these new laws were now something that not so noble Catholicism and not so ‘holy’ clergy could hide behind or within to cover up their and their confreres’ sexual activity.

    So, in summary, I believe, and this is my main point, that we are not dealing with men who feared breaking Canon Law, but with communities of men who had sexual ‘secrets’ (not well kept) which immobilised them from doing anything when they heard about the sexual activates of their ‘brothers’. While these ‘secrets’ weren’t such an issue amongst themselves, they would become a huge issue if the public, the parish found out that their wonderful priest had a double life. Perhaps this knowledge also brought blackmail into play as Richard Sipe also explains.

    No doubt, for those who did take it into consideration, now there was now a Canon Law which almost ensured that sexual scandals would not get out into the public, thereby giving a certain ‘courage’ to clergy to commit more sexual offences. It’s complicated, incorporating not just laws, but cultures, and the complex psychology of individuals and groups.

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