When Dorothy Parker was told that President Calvin Coolidge had just died, she remarked: “How can they tell?” I was reminded of this while watching the moribund memory of Bishop Brian Finnigan when giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Finnigan showed all the tell-tale signs of being physically alive, but his performance in the witness box left his credibility dead in the water. The Royal Commission could tell. At the end of two days of evidence, Counsel Assisting the Commission, Angus Stewart SC accused Finnigan of consistently distancing himself from any knowledge of child sexual abuse by priests in Ballarat, in order to protect himself and the Church. Finnigan said he did not intend to “create confusion”, but the end result was just as confusing as the James Joyce novel.
On 102 occasions, Finnigan said he could not remember things he had written or that had been written by others concerning child sexual abuse by clergy in Ballarat. It even became Monty Pythonesque when he was asked if he recalled his private interview with the Commission just five months earlier on 8 July 2015. Finnigan’s reply was “Yes, I knew I was there.”
Everyone would have trouble remembering details of minutes of meetings taken decades earlier, particularly if the matters discussed were humdrum. However, the matters that Finnigan was asked to recall were far from humdrum. They were allegations of serious sexual crimes by priests in the Ballarat diocese when he was the secretary to Bishop Mulkearns and later one of his consultors. In many instances, he was not even prepared to admit that the minutes and documents recording events were accurate, especially if they cast a slur on himself or the Church. His evidence was in marked contrast to that of his fellow bishop, Peter Connors who was praised by the Commission for being “very frank”.
Bishop Finnigan has composed a new Church Litany, the Memoria Moribunda : “I have no memory of that” ; “I don’t recall”, responses to the vast majority of questions put to him. It was not the first time this kind of litany has been recited. In matters of memory, this was pure Eddie Obeid before the ICAC, but this time coming from a voice box restrained by a plum, and surrounded by a Roman collar.
In a letter of 12 March 1994 to the notorious paedophile, Gerald Ridsdale, Finnigan wrote about Ridsdale’s accusers: “..some of these fellows now see the opportunity to obtain some easy cash”. When Finnigan was asked about this, he said it was “a rash statement, when rushing off things.”
But it was a belief that was quite widespread within the Church at the time, and in many places still is. In 2002 Cardinal Obando y Bravo likened some of the victims of clergy sexual abuse to Potiphar’s wife, seeking to gain “large pay offs on the basis of calumnious accusations.” In 2011, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, made a similar comment in an interview on Colombian CNN.
The accusations against Ridsdale were hardly false. Finnigan wrote this letter some 10 months after Ridsdale had been convicted of child sexual abuse on 27 May 1993, and Finnigan was advising him that the Catholic Insurances representative, Jim O’Connor wanted to speak to him about a number of other victims as well.
Finnigan had a lengthy interview with O’Connor on 20 April 1993. He was asked if it was true. He said,
“Basically, yes, but – well, I suppose I have to say yes…. I just thought it was a very run-of-the-mill interview, so to speak, and I had no idea it was going to be subject to such scrutiny nowadays; I would have probably expressed things differently, but yes, that’s mine, and what’s there is basically what I said.”
Then he said that O’Connor had probably edited the interview. He clarified what he meant: O’Connor had left out the “umms” and “ahhs”.
However, when it looked like some of his answers were coming uncomfortably close to the truth, Finnigan tried to do some of his own editing. In the O’Connor interview, he spoke about parishioners’ complaints about Ridsdale inviting lads around to his place to play pool and for being “overfriendly” with them. Finnigan told O’Connor that he “confronted” Ridsdale about it. When asked about this by the Commission he said that his use of the word “confront” was “a bit over-the-top. I don’t remember – I had nothing to confront him about.” Then the dead parrot of Finnigan’s memory has a remarkable resurrection, and he wonders if O’Connor “might have thought, oh, that’s a good word, and put it in there. I can’t remember using the word.”
In the O’Connor interview, Finnigan said that Fr Frank Madden had told him that he was concerned that some of Ridsdale’s contacts at Edenhope “might have been not just friendly.” It was suggested by Justice McLellan that Madden was telling Finnigan of his suspicions about Ridsdale. Finnigan’s response was to say, “I have no clear memory of what I meant”. He told McLellan that he was “probably making careless statements”, and that this interview was not “under oath”, and that he would “try to tell the truth” more under oath than in an interview with Catholic Insurances. The evidence suggests the opposite.
Finnigan told O’Connor how a woman went to an assistant priest to complain about Ridsdale’s behaviour with boys, but in evidence, his dead memory has another remarkable resurrection, and he said that she didn’t want to talk about Ridsdale at all, but about an annulment of her marriage.
Then Finnigan agreed that his public evidence before the Commission on the knowledge that the Ballarat consultors had about Ridsdale’s offending was more restrictive than the evidence he had given in a private hearing before the Commission some five months before. Once again, his memory improved once there was an opportunity to protect himself and the Church. The Commission now has hard evidence that despite all the claims that the Church has changed, some sections of it certainly have not.
Stewart put to Finnigan that his evidence was consistent with “the description that survivors have given of their experience of church officials in the 1980s, when trying to raise their concerns of sexual abuse of children by priests”. Finnigan’s answer was, “Yes, the response has been appalling.” And so was his evidence.
Kieran Tapsell is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (2014, ATF Press)