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Published: 24 November 2015
Author: Ryan Carlisle Thomas

Commission hears of widespread abuse in Melbourne Archdiocese

The court was full today for the start of the 35th case study of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Starting today, the Commission is hearing evidence about the response of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne to complaints of sexual abuse by its priests between 1980 and 1996.

The public hearings will focus on complaints and concerns about 8 priests: Fathers Nazareno Fasciale, Kevin O’Donnell, Ronald Pickering, Wilfred Baker, Peter Searson, David Daniel, Desmond Gannon and Barry Robinson. The state of knowledge of the abuse and role in handling complaints of then Archbishops, as well as other church officials of the Archdiocese, will also be subject to scrutiny.

In preparation for the public hearings, the Commission has conducted a comprehensive analysis of the complaints and substantiated claims of sexual abuse received by the Archdiocese.

The data is detailed in the Commission’s opening address, available online at:,-november-2015,-melbourne.aspx

In summary, the Commission’s data reveals that 454 complaints of child sexual abuse by priests and other employees had been received by the Archdiocese as at February 2015. The overwhelming majority of the accused abusers was male. 335 complaints were against priests. 

In terms of compensation to survivors of abuse, there were only 14 civil court claims relating to child sexual abuse by priests, the small number likely to be due to the technical defences the Archdiocese has in the past relied on in such claims. 7 of the 14 claims relating to sexual abuse by priests led to payments of compensation, with the Church paying an average of $238,000. By way of contrast, the average monetary payment made by the Church for claims of sexual abuse by priests made through the Melbourne Response was $35,000. The Melbourne Response is a process established by the Melbourne Archdiocese by the then Archbishop George Pell to deal with complaints of sexual and other abuse by priests, religious and lay persons under its control. 277 of such claims resulted in a payment of compensation.

Information provided to the Commission about the complaints of child sex abuse against the 8 priests the subject of the hearings was staggering. For example, Father Kevin O’Donnell, parish priest at Sacred Heart in Oakleigh, had 56 of sexual abuse made against him. The complaints were made between 1944 and 1990 and spanned 25 different institutions.

Numerous accounts of persistent offending

The information collected by the Commission revealed similar patterns for each of the priests the subject of the hearings. Numerous complaints of sexual abuse were made across a number of decades, during which time the priests were active Church officials in the community. The incidents of abuse occurred in a number of institutions, mostly parishes and schools. The first incident of abuse was often shortly after the priest had been ordained. The priests were permitted to continue in their duties and/or association with the Archdiocese until retirement and only in some cases were the benefits (faculties) paid to the priest by the Church removed.

The Commission’s first witness, former priest Philip O’Donnell, gave evidence about having served as an assistant parish priest under Fathers Wilfred Baker and Peter Searson. He spoke of Baker as someone  who was fixated on adolescent sexuality and obsessed with adolescent boys. This was said to be common knowledge among those who knew Baker. Philip O’Donnell gave evidence that the Principal of the Gladstone Park parish school was very aware that Baker posed a risk to children. When it was alleged Baker sexually abused one of the boys at the parish (by whom he had earlier seemed besotted), the Commission heard the allegations were reported to the then Archbishop Frank Little and Vicar General Peter Connors. As a result of the complaint, Baker was transferred to a parish in Eltham. His access to children was not restricted in any way. No one expressed concerns about the transfer or whether it posed a risk to other children.

Philip O’Donnell also told the Commission that Peter Searson, with whom he served as a priest in Sunbury, was a "psychiatrically disturbed man" and had a "very poor reputation among priests" as abrasive, unstable and unpleasant. The Commission heard staff at the Mount Carmel school complained to O'Donnell that Searson would take children alone to his rooms for sex education. O’Donnell also told the Commission that he reported numerous concerns about Searson to Archbishop Frank Little who eventually moved the priest to another parish.

The Commission’s public hearings into the Melbourne Archdiocese are due to continue until 4 December 2015, with Cardinal George Pell as the last witness to give evidence.  

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