By a Broken Rites researcher
For years, the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese knew that Father Peter Searson was committing sexual offences against boys, girls and women but he was allowed to continue in parishes, including at the Doveton parish (in Melbourne's south-east), where he survived for years under the supervision of the regional bishop for the south-eastern suburbs, Auxiliary Bishop George Pell. The Victoria Police investigated Searson for sexual offences in parishes but found it difficult to extract evidence from "loyal" church people. Eventually, after 35 years as a priest, the police finally managed to charge Searson with physical assault. Thus, Searson's abuse thus became public. The church authorities were forced to dump Searson from parish work. Hoping to protect the church's public image, the church also removed his name from the published list of retired priests.
Broken Rites research has ascertained that Peter Lloyd Searson was born on 4 April 1923 in Adelaide, South Australia, where he was a pupil at Sacred Heart College, a Marist Brothers school in Somerton Park. He was recruited to become a Marist Brother, and he adopted the "religious" name "Brother Bonaventure". (There was a "Saint" Bonaventure in medieval Europe but Peter Lloyd Searson was certainly no saint.)
The Broken Rites research confirmed that Peter Searson's name is included in a list of Marist Brothers who entered the Melbourne province of this religious order. (The Melbourne province provided Marists for South Australia and Western Australia, as well for Victoria.)
In the 1950s, Brother Bonaventure Searson taught at a Marist Brothers college in Mount Gambier, South Australia. A former Mount Gambier student, born in 1942, told Broken Rites in 2002 that he was a boarder at the school in the 1950s. Brother Bonaventure, he said, had a fetish for strapping students on their naked buttocks.
On 25 July 2012 an ex-student from this Mount Gambier school extracted an out-of-court settlement from the Marist Brothers for mental and physical abuse inflicted on him by Brother Bonaventure in 1957-58.
It is believed that, at some time, Brother Bonaventure Searson also taught at the Marist Brothers' Red Bend Catholic College in Forbes, western New South Wales. This school was administered by the Marists' Melbourne Province.
In the late 1950s, for some reason, the Marist order and Brother Bonaventure Searson parted company.
He then was accepted into a seminary to train as a priest, becoming ordained as Father Peter Searson in Rome on 7 April 1962 at the age of 39. He worked as a military chaplain in Europe in 1962 but, from 1963, he spent the rest of his priestly career in the Melbourne diocese. In the 1960s he worked as an assistant priest in Melbourne suburban parishes at Carlton, South Melbourne, Camberwell South and Mount Waverley.
It is believed that there were complaints about him in the 1960s. In the early 1970s he was at the Altona parish.
Broken Rites has discovered that, in 1974-75, Searson was listed as the chaplain to Melbourne's blind community. It is not clear why he was assigned to such a sensitive position, dealing with vulnerable people with a disability.
He led pilgrimages for the blind to the Holy Land and the sacred shrines of Europe.
A man ("Bruce") told Broken Rites in 1997 that in 1974 he was engaged to a young woman ("Sue") who was a nursing assistant, caring for blind people at the Villa Maria Society while Searson was the chaplain there. Bruce was a Catholic but Sue was not, so Sue (then aged 18) was sent to Father Searson for Catholic religious instruction. According to Sue, Searson quizzed her about her sex life and gave her "sex education" by mauling her genitals, saying that it was all right for priests to do this. He allegedly told Sue (who was not blind) that he needed to do this kind of thing when he was "helping" blind people. Sue's complaint went to the Melbourne archdiocesan authorities in 1974 but no action was taken.
In 1978-1984, Searson was the Parish Priest in charge at Sunbury (Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish) in Melbourne's outer north-west. Here there were complaints about Searson sexually harassing children at the parish primary school. Searson was taking children, one at a time, from the classroom to his study to give them "sex education". During Confession, a girl in Grade Six was required to sit on Searson's knee, while Searson fondled her intimately. In addition, he was alleged to have indecently touched a boy. However, these families did not want to tell the police.
This Sunbury situation was recalled a decade later in an article in the Melbourne Sunday Herald Sun (23 March 1997). The paper reported:
"According to police sources, he [Searson] had been interviewed by Community Policing Squad police at Sunbury in 1982 following complaints from a lay teacher and parishioners...
"According to police, the parents of the alleged Sunbury victim decided aginst taking action and charges were never laid...
"At the time, Fr Searson denied the allegations, but conceded to a ban which prevented him from taking children into the confessonal and his presbytery."
In 1984 Searson took charge of the Holy family parish at Doveton, an area of low-economic status near Dandenong, in Melbourne's outer south-east.
At Doveton there were again complaints about him touching or sexually harassing children.
Detectives from the Victoria Police investigated Searson in the 1980s but families were reluctant to allow their children to make a signed police statement. This made a prosecution impossible.
Although families were reluctant to speak to police, some families were prepared to speak to the church authorities. This evidence was not made available to the police.
At Doveton there were also complaints about Searson being aggressive towards children and about him being authoritarian in the school and the parish. At least one family moved their children from Searson's school to another school.
The Dandenong Journal of 27 October 1986 reported that a meeting of fifty parents at the Doveton parish school petitioned the archdiocesan office, seeking the removal of Searson as parish priest. The vicar-general of the Melbourne archdiocese at that time was one of Melbourne's four auxiliary bishops, Bishop Hilton Deakin. Searson was not disciplined and therefore a number of parents withdrew their children from the school. Searson began retaliating against staff who had supported the parents. The school principal, Graeme Sleeman, resigned.
In April 1987, a Mass was held to celebrate Searson's silver jubilee as a priest. The Dandenong Journal (23 April 1987) reported: "Twenty-six priests, including Monsignor Kevin Toomey, concelebrated eucharist with Fr Searson, and the homily was delivered by a long-standing friend who is acting as regional bishop, Dr Hilton Deakin."
From 1987 to 1996, Searson's regional bishop was George Pell who was Melbourne's auxiliary bishop for the south-eastern suburbs.
In early 1996, detectives investigated Searson regarding a complaint by an adult female and had a liaison meeting with the vicar-general (administrator) of the Melbourne archdiocese, Monsignor Gerald Cudmore.
The archdiocese now realised that, with the police involvement, the Searson matters could become a public embarrassment for the church. In late 1996, the Melbourne archdiocese appointed a senior barrister, Peter O'Callaghan, QC, as its Commissioner on Sexual Abuse. O'Callaghan's role was to receive, and adjudicate on, all complaints concerning Melbourne clergy. A number of Searson victims contacted O'Callaghan, who then began investigating Searson. Broken Rites believes that some of the material reviewed by Peter O'Callaghan QC concerned Searson's earlier parishes, such as Mount Waverley in the 1960s, as well as Sunbury and Doveton in the 1970s and 1980s.
In March 1997, Melbourne Archbishop George Pell issued a media release (drafted with the help of a public relations firm, Royce Communications), announcing that he had suspended Fr Searson from parish work indefinitely pending an inquiry by the archdiocese's Commissioner on Sexual Abuse, Peter O'Callaghan QC, into certain "serious" allegations against Fr Searson.
Reporting this media release, the Melbourne Herald Sun said (on 20 March 1997): "Father Searson ... has been ordered to go on administrative leave until the allegations have been investigated.
"Shocked parishioners [at Doveton] first heard the news when replacement priest Father Arthur Pinto read them a letter from Dr Pell last weekend."
In a letter to a suburban newspaper, Melbourne priest Father Michael Shadbolt criticised the church for publicly naming Searson after his suspension. Fr Shadbolt, who was then an assistant priest at Hampton Park (south-east of Melbourne), suggested that the identity of accused clergy should not be revealed until they were brought before the criminal justice sysem. Shadbolt, however, knows that, too often, the church has protected the offenders, preventing their cases from reaching the criminal justice system. Broken Rites, on the other hand, has given victims the contact details of the child-abuse unit in the state police force, where victims can tell their story to a detective.
Interviewed by the Herald Sun (4 April 1997, p.23), Peter O'Callaghan, QC, declined to comment on the specific case of Fr Searson but he said that placing a priest on "administrative leave did not in any way mean a decision had been made as to whether or not the complaint had been made out."
"Any priest subject of a complaint is entitled to and will be afforded natural justice," Mr O'Callaghan said.
It is interesting that, by 2000, Father Shadbolt had been appointed as the Parish Priest to succeed Searson at Doveton.
Hampered by insufficient co-operation from church sex-abuse victims, the police finally managed to summon Searson to court for physical assault. Broken Rites alerted all media outlets about the court listing. In Dandenong Magistrates Court in December 1997, Peter Searson pleaded guilty to physically assaulting a 12-year-old altar boy. Searson (then aged 74) was placed on a six-months good-behaviour bond.
According to the Dandenong Examiner (9 December 1997) and the Dandenong Journal (8 December 1997), the court was told that Searson struck two altar boys over the ears at the Doveton parish primary school in 1996 because he claimed they had giggled during Mass. He is alleged to have said: "When I was younger, that's what happened to me."
One boy's mother complained to the school but Searson denied the allegation. The mother then told the police and Searson again denied it, saying he merely "touched" the boy on the head. The boy stuck to his story and told police: 'I'm angry that a priest has lied. People will think that I'm the liar."
The second altar boy signed a police statement in support of the other boy's complaint. Searson's lawyer claimed the priest was pleading guilty to save himself and the boys the ordeal of testifying on oath. The prosecutor said the boy was quite willing to testify on oath. The guilty plea, however, made this unnecessary and saved Searson from the perils of cross-examination.
From 1998 onwards, after Peter Searson's court case (and the resulting publicity), the annual editions of the Australian Catholic directories listed Searson as "retired". Beginning in 2006 his name vanished from the Catholic directory altogether, although he continued to be listed in in the Telstra telephone directory (living in Camberwell in Melbourne's east) until he died a few years later.
In 2014, Broken Rites research was used in Australian television program Four Corners, giving examples of the Catholic Church's cover-up of sexual abuse, including at Melbourne's Doveton parish. The Broken Rites research showed how the Melbourne Archdiocese leadership sent a succession of sexually-abusive priests to this parish. For example (you can click on any of the following names).
Broken Rites is proud to have helped Four Corners with our research.
You can still watch this episode of Four Corners (entitled "In the Name of the Law") on the FOUR CORNERS website.