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.”
Understandably distracted by our own little crisis of trust, we have perhaps not taken in the apocalyptic import of a bigger one across the Irish Sea.
Perhaps it is a vague sense that we knew it all; perhaps reluctance to engage with the horrid details of the Ryan report into child abuse by Irish clerics. Perhaps some think it is old history, a 1950s horror. Maybe there is even a decorous sense that — as a new Archbishop of Westminster is enthroned here — it is tasteless to dwell on the wickedness deliberately concealed by his Church right into the 1990s. Or maybe our own child protection system now looks so shaky that we cannot bear to contemplate the toothless, deferential Irish respect for the priesthood that enabled thousands of children to be starved, raped, enslaved and beaten even as Ireland moved into its tiger economy in the new Europe.
But don’t look away. There are wider lessons. Ireland is at least looking squarely at it now, and trying to understand how history twisted its public values into obeisance to unanswerable clergy, so that cruelty and child rape became endemic. It was not only in orphanages and schools but in parishes where families dared not protest. For it was the courageous Colm O’Gorman who helped to prise this all open, when he spoke of his repeated rape, at 14, by Father Sean Fortune in his home village. He successfully sued the Church and challenged the Pope (whose nuncio hid behind “diplomatic immunity”).
The victim was accused by the Vatican of being part of a conspiracy; “Canon Law” defences were invoked and the first report — the Ferns report — ignored. “How can it be,” asks Mr O’Gorman, “that a church hierarchy who comment on a children’s film [Harry Potter] can fail to comment on a report, commissioned by this State, that found Rome culpable in the rape and abuse of Irish children?”
Now the wider, more terrifying Ryan report has met with almost equal evasion and the Church — which raked in millions from government subsidy over decades — has even managed to slough off most of its financial responsibility.
I am not exaggerating; rather the contrary. The Ryan report, merciless and forensic, finds the crimes “systemic, pervasive, chronic, excessive, arbitrary”. It speaks of the deliberate protection of priests and religious by their hierarchy; of inspectors and police backing off respectfully and senior clergy refusing to help the inquiry. It says that the order that housed the worst sadists, the Christian Brothers, made only a “guarded, conditional and unclear” apology, and cut a deal that no individuals should be named.
The children’s own testimonies are too harrowing to repeat: beaten, stripped, humiliated, hung from windows. Some got pregnant, some killed themselves. Sexual attack came not only from their keepers but visiting functionaries; one little boy who spoke of being assaulted by an ambulance driver was beaten by the nuns “to get the evil out of him”.
Enough. There is no defence, the evidence is overwhelming. It was a sickness of cruelty, exploitation, official cowardice and inward-looking hypocrisy traceable all the way to the Vatican. Catholicism has not been cleaned up, only lightly dusted. Some Irish dioceses have become properly robust, and Cardinal Seán Brady, the Primate of All Ireland, speaks of being “deeply ashamed”; but I do not notice him pointing his condemnation upwards or rejecting the culture of hierarchy and obedience, anonymity and deniability.
Our own new Archbishop, Vincent Nichols, expressed due horror, but then enraged survivors by praising the “courage” of clergy “who have to face these facts from their past”. Incredibly, in an interview on Five Live, he also observed: “it is a tough road to take, to face up to our own weaknesses. That is certainly true of anyone who’s deceived themselves that all they’ve been doing is taking a bit of comfort from children.”
Weakness? Comfort? God save us! It gives an insight into why the Church, quick to absolve, blithely moved known abusers on to fresh fields and fresh victims.
“They had their own laws that were written to ensure they were never in the wrong” says Mr O’Gorman, simply. And they covered their backs: when the former Archbishop of Dublin was told that he could be liable if abusers were returned to parishes, he did not prevent this happening. He just took out an insurance policy against financial losses from such claims.
It has been an Irish disaster, but has lessons for us all about the perils of respectful naivety. Archbishop Nichols, after his predecessor moved a paedophile priest to Gatwick, where he offended again, said that little was known about paedophilia then; well, he still knows little if he can talk about men “taking a bit of comfort from children”.
This is pure celibate silliness: we are not talking about cuddles here, but rape. I grew up with the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness of sins, I know the territory: but to forgive your own team and ignore their victims is not holy. It is corrupt.
When good people are smug and bad ones are slippery, great evils grow. When any institution slaps on a self-approving label — whether it is “Holy Catholic Apostolic” or like our MP’s, “Honourable” — and uses it to defy cynical inspection, the weak will suffer. What seems not to be fully understood by the hierarchy is how much damage this has done.
It gives me no pleasure to say so: I was raised a Catholic, and know what high ideals of gentleness it expresses, and how beautifully.
I learnt at 12 years old not to believe in the automatic holiness of the religious, in a South African convent where nuns hit us and spoke contemptuously of “kaffirs”. I then learnt not to condemn the lot, when I moved back to a kindly, intellectual English convent where they honestly tried to live the holy dream. I have always been able to believe the tales of evil without rejecting the whole shebang.
Many Catholic clergy do great good. The remarkable Colm O’Gorman, after decades of struggle, does not reject the ideal either: he says he wept for Father Fortune’s suicide and hopes that in afterlife he finds forgiveness.
Now that’s holiness for you, and without a smug label round its neck. And until the institutional Catholic Church recognises that, abases itself, pays up, allows whistleblowing and faces the unthinkable, it remains a disgrace. Until it learns humility, it has no hope at all. It is a Church living with one foot in Hell.