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Archbishop Hart and survivors continue harrowing evidence at Royal Commission

Case Study 35 of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse resumed today with an investigation into the abhorrent sexual abuse of Fr Wilfred (Bill) Baker at both the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Gladstone Park and at St James Primary School, North Richmond.

Survivor witness BTO and former principal of St James Primary School, Patricia Taylor both gave evidence in relation to Fr Baker’s abuse.

BTO described how he was sexually abused multiple times by Fr Baker as an altar boy at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Gladstone Park. Fr Baker cultivated a relationship with BTO’s family, frequenting the family home for dinner on a weekly basis, and took BTO on regular visits to Fr Baker’s family home in Maryborough where the abuse would continue. BTO went on to describe his traumatic experience with the ‘Melbourne Response’, the process established by the Catholic Church to deal with people who have been abused by priests and other religious figures within the Melbourne Archdiocese. BTO explained that the monetary payment he received “made me feel dirty” and stated that it “felt like hush money”. BTO finished his evidence to applause, pleading with the Commission to “please save me… and all the other people that have been abused.”

Ms Taylor continued the evidence in relation to Fr Baker, describing him as having a “drinking problem” so severe that he would commence drinking at 9:00am following mass and be “legless” by the afternoon. Prior to the appointment of Fr Baker as the parish priest, Ms Taylor described an “ususual” meeting conducted by Maryann Brookes and Fr Mark Reynolds of the Catholic Education Office. Ms Taylor said she understood the meeting as being “off the record” and was given four distinct warnings in relation to Fr Baker. She was advised not to allow children be alone with Fr Baker; not to allow children to go to confessional with Fr Baker behind closed doors; not to give staff phone numbers to Fr Baker; and not to be in a room by herself with Fr Baker. Ms Taylor was informed that allegations were made in relation to Fr Baker in other parishes, including Gladstone Park and Eltham. Shortly after this meeting, two other individuals advised her that serious allegations had been made against Fr Baker. Ms Taylor voiced her concerns in a private meeting with Bishop Connors, hoping that he would rescind the appointment of Fr Baker to the parish. Ms Taylor said that despite Bishop Connors appearing “very concerned”, he commented that “research shows that once a paedophile always a paedophile.”

Thus, despite clear evidence and knowledge of Fr Baker’s history of child abuse on the part of the Catholic Education Office and members of the Catholic Church, his appointment to North Richmond remained. Given her knowledge, Ms Taylor felt forced to undertake her own measures to protect the safety of the children. However, she did not continue to raise her concerns at the higher level because, as parish priest, Fr Baker became her employer upon his appointment to the parish. When questioned by Royal Commission Chair, the Hon Justice Peter McClellan AM, as to whether this structure was appropriate, Ms Taylor conceded that whilst on the whole the structure had worked for her that it had failed in other cases.

The Commission then moved on to a brief investigation of Fr Ronald Pickering at the St Mary’s School in East St Kilda. Survivor witness BTU gave evidence remotely in relation to his shocking experiences of sexual abuse between the ages of 11 and 23 in the parishes of East St Kilda, Warburton, Clayton and Gardenvale. In 1968, BTU disclosed the abuse to none other than Fr Baker, who was then at St Colman’s Church in Balaclava. BTU said that it became apparent that the confidentiality of his confession had been ignored as Fr Pickering confronted him about it soon afterwards. BTU also described his experience with the ‘Melbourne Response’ as “very traumatic”, as he was forced to confront a panel of eight people during the process.

The last and much anticipated witness of the day was current Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart, whose evidence focused on the roles of the Archbishop, Vicar General and Auxiliary Bishop as well as describing the failings of the Catholic Church’s response to allegations of child abuse. After questioning by His Honour McLellan, Archbishop Hart conceded that criticism that the Church’s response to allegations of abuse was aimed at minimising the risk of scandal to the Church was a “valid criticism.” Although Archbishop Hart stated that parishioners are advised when a priest has been removed from office, they are not informed of the reason for the removal, and there has been no publication of priests’ convictions by the Archdiocese made available to the general public.

Further, despite fortnightly meetings with Bishops, Archbishops and Vicar Generals to discuss matters of importance in their region, the Commission noted a distinct lack of “middle management” in the Archdiocese, given the number of parishes that are being monitored. It was also noted that the Archbishop’s power is essentially unchecked, outside of his responsibility to act in accordance with the teachings and scriptures of the Church.

Archbishop Hart went on to discuss a number of criticisms of the Catholic Church’s response to the sexual abuse scandal, including an “absence of adequate policies, processes and procedures to deal with complaints of abuse”, the “failure of Church leaders to listen when complaints were made and then to have those complaints investigated and acted upon” and the “failure to act upon credible information which was indicative of risk.” He also stated that in some instances survivors were blatantly discouraged from making complaints.

Archbishop Hart’s evidence will continue tomorrow at 10:00am.