A Catholic Church inquiry into its handling of a priest who repeatedly sexually abused altar boys has cleared three senior clergy of a cover-up, laying much of the blame at the feet of a deceased bishop.
The present bishop of Armidale, Michael Kennedy, has apologised ‘‘unreservedly’’ to victims and their families after the investigation’s report into a former priest was released on Thursday.
The report – deeply critical of the diocese under his predecessor, Bishop Henry Kennedy – highlighted poor record-keeping, ineffective assessments and inaction as serious allegations against the priest ‘‘cried out for investigation’’.
The former priest, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was accused of sexually assaulting boys in the dioceses of Armidale and Parramatta during the 1980s. Two of the 59-year-old’s victims have since committed suicide.
Federal Court judge Antony Whitlam, QC, was commissioned to conduct the inquiry after allegations against the priest and claims of a cover-up were broadcast by the ABC’s Four Corners program last year.
Three senior priests gave conflicting accounts of the priest’s admissions during a 1992 meeting, and why he was not reported to police.
However, Mr Whitlam found ‘‘there is nothing sinister with that situation’’.
The report said he ‘‘did not disbelieve’’ two of the priests who said that the priest had made no admissions that either priest considered ‘‘could and should’’ be reported to the police, even though their accounts ‘‘cannot be reconciled’’ with the ‘‘very specific admissions’’ in a written account one sent days after the 1992 meeting.
‘‘Nor do I consider that the earlier document must necessarily be accepted as a more accurate record of the discussion,’’ it said.
One of the priests revealed he nonetheless formed the view that the accused priest was a ‘‘sexually maladjusted creep’’ and unsuitable for life as a priest, the report said.
The priest was defrocked in 2005.
The report found ‘‘[the priest] would have been stopped in his tracks’’ had the church’s present procedures for reporting abuse been in force and observed in Moree in the 1980s, when the priest was abruptly moved to Tamworth.
The lack of a contemporaneous account of the reasons for this move was the ‘‘most glaring omission’’ of the Armidale diocese’s records.
But the report reserved its greatest criticism for its then bishop, Henry Joseph Kennedy, who knew of concerns about the priest yet ‘‘sat on his hands and did nothing’’.
The priest had been charged with serious sexual offences against a young boy in 1987, but cleared after a committal heading.
Mr Whitlam found it ‘‘utterly inexplicable’’ that Bishop Kennedy did not look into the incident, labelling the clergyman’s treatment of the victim’s parents ‘‘a disgrace’’.
‘‘Even if the allegations against [the priest] were false, these matters required attention in order to understand how they could be made,’’ it found.
Bishop Kennedy also failed to tell the then Bishop of Parramatta, Bede Vincent Heather, of the full extend of the priest’s history.
‘‘I am of the view that, had Bishop Heather been given a full and accurate picture of [the priest’s] background, he would never have agreed to take him on in the diocese of Parramatta,’’ Mr Whitlam found.
The since-deceased bishop, not to be confused with Armidale’s present bishop, Michael Kennedy, also ordained the accused priest despite widely held concerns in the seminary about ‘‘defects’’ in his personality and character.
‘‘Bishop HJ Kennedy appears to have had an unbending and inexplicable determination to make [him] a priest,’’ the report said.
The accused had started work as an assistant priest in Moree in the early 1980s.
The diocese of Armidale and Parramatta have accepted the findings of the report, which has been handed to police.
Bishop Michael Kennedy offered his ‘‘deepest heartfelt and unequivocal apology’’ to victims and their families on Thursday.
‘‘It is not my place to try to determine Bishop Kennedy’s motives or intentions, but simply to acknowledge the sad truth: that one of my predecessors failed, in this instance, in his duty of governance of the diocese and, more importantly, in his duty of the pastoral care of its people,’’ he said.
A police spokeswoman said no criminal action is being taken by police based on the information in the report ‘‘at this time’’.
The strikeforce set up to investigate allegations of abuse against the priest ‘‘is an independent investigation which is ongoing’’, she said.
Chris MacIsaac, a spokeswoman for the Broken Rites Australia victim support group, said the inquiry was commissioned and paid for by the church, which was managing the report’s release.
‘‘The forthcoming Royal Commission can conduct a completely independent inquiry into such matters. The commissioners will not be hired by the Church,’’ she said.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.