MELBOURNE Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart told a woman who had been sexually abused by a priest to “go to hell, bitch” in conduct labelled appalling by a Victorian magistrate.
Archbishop Hart later apologised to the woman in the Melbourne Magistrates Court for what magistrate Anne Goldsborough described as ”appalling words of abuse”.
But last night Archbishop Hart repeatedly claimed that he ”did not recall” his comments or the magistrate’s rebuke in mid-2004. ”It was a number of years ago, I don’t recall precisely,” he told The Age.
When put to him that he would surely recall the comment because it had become an issue in court, he again said: ”I don’t recall.”
Court documents confirm the archbishop’s outburst after he was granted an intervention order against the woman, who had pursued him over her abuse by priest Barry Whelan in 2001.
The magistrate said that a ”very, very angry” Archbishop Hart had told the woman to ”go to hell bitch” after she knocked on his door at 1.20am in March, 2004. The woman was the subject of an earlier intervention order after she had thrown stones through a window of the archbishop’s house and hassled him and his staff.
Delivering her findings in June 2004, Magistrate Goldsborough said: “Archbishop Hart has apologised for this appalling and ungracious act directly from the witness box in my presence.”
The magistrate said she “did not consider he [Archbishop Hart] was fearful or had any apprehension for himself or others” when he found the woman on his doorstep – but also described her conduct as unacceptable.
The magistrate found that the archbishop was angry that his privacy had been significantly breached as a result of the early morning visit.
But Ms Goldsborough rejected the archbishop’s lawyer’s claim that the victim’s abuse was not a relevant factor in the intervention order court case.
”I am assured … by the archbishop himself that [he] … has a good understanding of the complex set of circumstances in which [the victim] finds herself at least in part caused by her … abuse by former father Barry Whelan.”
In her findings, the magistrate also said that after attending the archbishop’s house, the woman had later asked for an apology from the archbishop over his comments and told his staff over the phone that she wanted to kill him. Ms Goldsborough found that the woman ”had no intention to carry out this threat”, but said it was ”threatening and alarming”.
”[The victim] says all of the behaviour illustrated in her phone conversations is borne out of her hurt and frustration,” Ms Goldsborough found.
”While that may be entirely understandable in one sense it is absolutely unacceptable behaviour in all other senses.” Whelan abused the woman in 2001 after his suspension as a priest in the 1990s for abusing another woman had been overturned.
Over several decades, five women have accused Whelan of sexually abusing them, including a woman who was 13 at the time of the alleged abuse and a woman who claims to have had Whelan’s son. The church reached a confidential settlement in 2006 with the woman involved in the 2004 court case.
While being unable to recall his comments to the woman and his dressing down by the magistrate, Archbishop Hart yesterday detailed some of the events that led to the court case. ”I put my cassock on, I went down to the door and I was very annoyed … [she was] ringing and ringing and ringing, I had just got to sleep, I was very tired, I was about to go off to Rome and I went down and I am sure I would have spoken strongly, but what I said I don’t recall.”
The Age reported yesterday that a St Patrick’s Cathedral newsletter last month named Barry Whelan as a ”living treasure”, despite the church’s own investigator finding that he had abused several woman. The archdiocese has said this was a mistake and has apologised.
The Age investigation into the Melbourne Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse claims has also reported:
? That a priest accused of abusing a minor was told by a church investigator that he was the subject of a covert police probe.
Archbishop Hart said yesterday he had accepted Peter O’Callaghan’s denial that he was told not to tell the priest about the police inquiry.
? Comments from Melbourne Vicar General Les Tomlinson that there is a church sex abuse ”victims’ industry” that seeks to exploit victims to make money – which the Archbishop yesterday said ”weren’t helpful”.
? Calls from a victims collective, who are backed by two interstate bishops, to review the Melbourne archdiocese’s handling of complaints. Archbishop Hart said there was no need to review the system. ”I would much rather concentrate on the compassion that we need to show to victims … They are people who should have expected more from priests and it is a tremendous suffering to be let down by people they trusted.”
In his installation service as the new leader of Catholics in England and Wales, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols called for a greater respect of religious belief.
He said that attempts to marginalise faith must not be allowed to succeed if the country is to overcome its problems of social cohesion.
Secularists, such as Richard Dawkins, who try to rubbish religion are encouraging intolerance, the archbishop told a congregation of 2,000 at Westminster Cathedral.
“Faith is never a solitary activity nor can it be simply private,” he said.
“Some today propose that faith and reason are crudely opposed, with the fervour of faith replacing good reason. This reduction of both faith and reason inhibits not only our search for truth but also the possibility of real dialogue.”
Prof Dawkins has described Christian theology as vacuous and argued that faith and superstition are incompatible with the rigours of “logic, observation and evidence, through reason”.
In a Channel 4 programme, the Enemies of Reason, he said: “Today reason has a battle on its hands. Reason and a respect for evidence are the source of our progress, our safeguard against fundamentalists and those who profit from obscuring the truth.
“We live in dangerous times when superstition is gaining ground and rational science is under attack.”
Archbishop Nichols countered that those who portray faith “as a narrowing of the human mind or spirit” are wrong.
He urged that there should be “respectful dialogue” and that this needs to go “beyond the superficial and slogans”.
“Let us be a society in which we genuinely listen to each other, in which sincere disagreement is not made out to be insult or harassment, in which reasoned principles are not construed as prejudice and in which we are prepared to attribute to each other the best and not the worst of motives.”
The archbishop played a leading role in fighting the introduction of gay rights laws in 2006, which now make it illegal to discriminate against gay couples when placing children for adoption.
His intervention was one of a series of battles fought by church leaders over religious freedoms in Britain and against what they perceive as the advancing tide of secularism.
Archbishop Nichols claimed that the country would benefit from maintaining faith at the centre of public life, adding that it would help build a more cohesive society.
“As a society, if we are to build on this gift of faith, we must respect its outward expression not only in honouring individual conscience but also in respecting the institutional integrity of the communities of faith in what they bring to public service and to the common good.
“Only in this way will individuals, families and faith communities become wholehearted contributors to building the society we rightly seek.”
He said “a community of faith reaches beyond ethnicity, cultural difference and social division”.
Politicians, royals and church leaders attended the service, which saw Archbishop Vincent Nichols succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor as the 11th Archbishop of Westminster.
Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said relations between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches had become “closer and warmer”.
“The fact the archbishops have been able to meet is a welcome development, and a sign that we all recognise common challenges and the need to play and act together.”
Earlier, the new Archbishop risked controversy on his first day in office when he said a report exposing decades of systematic child abuse by Catholic priests and nuns in Ireland would “overshadow” the good they had done.
He said it took “courage” for Catholic church members who abused children to face up to their actions.
Michele Elliott, chief executive of the charity Kidscape, said: “It is ludicrous. It should be a straightforward mea culpa.
“It is a moral stance, and he should say that it is all about the children and the rest of them be damned. There are no excuses for religious orders.”