The church carefully left no "paper trail" regarding these abusive priests

By a Broken Rites researcher

One of Australia's most prominent Catholic officials, Father Brian Lucas, avoided preserving any written notes from his "in-house" interviews with a number of abusive priests, a government inquiry has been told. Therefore, police have been prevented from using any such notes in charging these priests with any crimes. This tactic protected the priests from police prosecution and helped the church to avoid bad publicity.

In 2013 the New South Wales State Government launched a Special Commission of Inquiry to investigate allegations that child-abuse offences have been covered up in the Catholic diocese of Maitland-Newcastle diocese (comprising several dozen towns in the Hunter region, north of Sydney). The Commission (chaired by Commissioner Margaret Cunneen, Senior Counsel) has held dozens of sitting-days in the city of Newcastle during 2013.

At hearings of the Commission on in July 2013, Father Brian Lucas, appeared in the witness box. Lucas, who became a frequent media spokesman for the Catholic hierarchy from the 1980s onwards, is now the general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference.

Brian Lucas graduated, with a law degree, from the University of Sydney in 1974. He became a barrister before being ordained a Catholic priest in 1979.

The Commission of Inquiry was told that, for six years to the end of 1996, the Catholic Church authorities assigned Fr Lucas and another senior priest, Father John Usher (the current chancellor of the Archdiocese of Sydney), to travel throughout New South Wales and Canberra, interviewing 35 priests who had been accused of child sexual assault. Fr Lucas said in evidence that about ten of these priests admitted the offences, and Fr Lucas persuaded these ten to leave the ministry — "secretly and discreetly" [that is, without warning families that their children may have been in danger].

Questioned by the senior counsel assisting the Commission (Ms Julia Lonergan), Father Lucas agreed that nothing was written to say that a particular abusive priest had been removed from ministry as an abuser. Lucas agreed that such priests were generally described in the church directory as either having "retired" or "having no appointment".

The Commission of Inquiry was told that the church did not alert the police about these abusive priests. [This lessened the chance of police being able to prosecute these priests for past offences.]

Fr Lucas indicated [without providing proof] that the reason for the church not alerting the police was that many victims [he claimed] "did not want" these priests to be convicted.

Fr Lucas admitted that he advised other clergy that it was a good idea not to take notes of interviews with priests accused of sexual abuse, so that any such notes couldn't be successfully used in legal action [that is, if police prosecuted a priest on behalf of victims or if a victim tackled the church for compensation].

Fr Lucas said it was a "serious and well understood dilemma" within church legal circles that clergy risked being charged with the crime of "misprision of a felony" (that is, the crime of concealing a serious offence), if they did not alert the police about the priests' offences.

A 1995 letter, tendered in evidence to the Commission of Inquiry, indicates that the Catholic Church sought legal advice about "misprision of felony" and its legal equivalents in the different Australian states and the territories.

(In New South Wales in the 1990s, the old crime of misprision of a felony was replaced by a similar law, now known as Section 316 of the NSW Crimes Act. Under Section 316 in NSW, it is an offence not to report a crime to the civil authorities.)

Footnote

This Commission of Inquiry in 2013 is particularly concerned with how complaints were handled (or mis-handled) concerning two criminal priests in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese (see these articles by Broken Rites):