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Published: 25 November 2015
Author: Ryan Carlisle Thomas

Frustration over reporting and responding to sexual abuse at Melbourne Catholic school

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard evidence of sexual abuse at the Holy Family Parish Primary School in Doveton in Melbourne’s south-east and the experiences of survivors and teachers at the school who tried to speak out.

Abuse survivor Julie Stewart told the hearing she was sexually abused at the school by the parish priest, Father Peter Searson when she went to reconciliation in the confessional in 1984 and 1985.

The former Principal of the Holy Family School Mr Graeme Sleeman told the Commission he recalled seeing Ms Stewart run away from the confessional and appearing very upset. 

Mr Sleeman said from that moment on he was seriously concerned about Fr Searson. 

“I was convinced that Fr Searson was into interfering with boys and girls,” he said.

“Julie became extremely withdrawn... that was the day that I became extremely concerned about other children in my care being damaged by this guy,” he said.

Mr Sleeman also told the Commission he had heard complaints from parents and parishioners at the school about “strange behaviour” by Fr Searson, including pointing a gun at a group of cleaners who were working on the school grounds after hours. Mr Sleeman said one of the class teachers at the school also refused to take her pupils to confessional because she feared that Searson was making sexual advances towards the children.

Mr Sleeman told today’s hearing he reported his concerns about Searson to a representative of the Catholic Education Office, Allan Dooley. Mr Sleeman said that he attended meetings with Searson and Dooley and Searson always denied the abuse.  

Mr Sleeman said he was frustrated by the inaction from the Catholic Education Office despite many complaints about Searson’s apparent sexual interest in children.

“I was never informed where Alan Dooley went with my complaints... I never knew what happened,” he said.

Mr Sleeman said he eventually wrote to Mr Dooley’s superior at the Catholic Education Office, Father Tom Doyle, in the hope there would be an investigation into Searson. Mr Sleeman said he felt that he had no support from his superiors.

“I thought, ‘how do I deal with 400 kids when we’ve got this raving lunatic on the loose?” he said.

Ms Stewart told the hearing she eventually made a police statement about the abuse by Fr Searson but officers told her there was not enough evidence to proceed to a criminal prosecution.

Alan Dooley and Tom Doyle will give evidence to the Royal Commission hearing, which is continuing at the Melbourne County Court this week. The hearings are open to the public. 

Peter Searson was eventually convicted over other similar offences and died in 2009. In 2014 an investigation by the ABC’s Four Corners program investigated what Church authorities knew about Searson’s offending and spoke to many involved in the scandal.

Holy Family abuse survivors say Melbourne Response re-traumatising

At today’s hearing, Julie Stewart said in 1997 she was invited to participate in an informal hearing before Peter O’Callaghan QC, the Independent Commissioner for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne’s internal complaints process known as the Melbourne Response, to address the abuse by Fr Searson.

“In 1997 I went meeting at Optus House [in Collins St] which I thought it was Mr O’Callaghan’s office. I was being prepared for a face-to-face meeting with Searson,” she said.

“I found the hearing very distressing. I was made to sit facing Fr Searson and I was questioned by his lawyer for a very long time,” she said.

“I was made to sign a confidentiality agreement. When I left the hearing I broke down and cried. I received a cheque from the Archdiocese for $25,000 and an apology from Archbishop Pell. I had never asked for an apology,” she said.

“I felt that the whole process re-traumatised me,” she said.

The Melbourne Response, established by then Archbishop George Pell in 1996 to deal with complaints of child abuse within the Melbourne Archdiocese, has already been the subject of an earlier Royal Commission public hearing. The Commission’s final report, produced after the hearing, was critical of the Melbourne Response, finding that it is not sufficiently independent of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. It further found that some survivors who had been through the Melbourne Response felt discouraged from reporting their abuse to police.

Since 1996, the Melbourne Response has been one of the very few avenues available to survivors of child sexual abuse in the Melbourne Archdiocese who want to seek financial redress. This is because of the Archdiocese’s previous reliance on the so-called ‘Ellis Defence’ which effectively prevents the Catholic Church from being sued in court in cases of historical child abuse because of the Church’s legal structure. On the eve of the Royal Commission hearings this week, the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council said that the church leadership had agreed on a new set of guidelines to aid survivors wanting to take legal action, including assisting a claimant to identify the correct defendant to respond to legal proceedings. These new guidelines come into effect on 1 January 2016.

Ryan Carlisle Thomas is Victoria’s largest law firm representing survivors of institutional abuse. We believe this month’s Royal Commission public hearing into the response of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne is an important opportunity for survivors to be heard and the Church’s response to be examined. The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne’s past conduct in abuse claims should not deter survivors from seeking redress for abuse. It is important that legal and community pressure is continued to be brought to bear on Catholic Church authorities so that survivors can access justice. 

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