This archishop covered up a priest's crimes

  • By a Broken Rites researcher (article posted 12 November 2013)

A court has heard how one of Australia's most prominent Catholic archbishops, Most Reverend Sir Frank Little (of Melbourne), covered up the crimes of a priest (Father Russell Vears). A parent notified Archbishop Little about the crimes, but the church authorities managed to conceal the crimes from the police until one of the victims contacted the police three decades years later, in 2011.

Sir Frank Little was the archbishop of Melbourne (one of the largest Catholic dioceses in Australia) from 1974 to 1996.

Father Russell Robert Vears (ordained in 1975) was protected by the Melbourne diocese until the 1980s. He later ceased working in parishes and changed his surname to Walker, which evidently had been his family name in his childhood. However, although he no longer has a parish now, Vears/Walker still has not been officially stripped of his priesthood.

Broken Rites began doing research about Vears in 1998. (See a sub-heading near the end of this article.)

In the Melbourne County Court on 12 November 2013, Judge Felicity Hampel sentenced Walker to five years jail for sexually abusing two altar boys during the 1970s. He was charged and sentenced under the name of Walker.

(These two were not necessarily Walker's only victims. These two happen to be those who eventually took the opportunity have a talk with police detectives.)

Judge Hampel said Russell Vears had been a 27-year-old newly ordained priest in 1976 when appointed as assistant priest at a parish in Melbourne's outer south-east.

Within a year of his arrival at the parish, Walker began the sexual abuse.

Addressing Vears/Walker in her sentencing remarks, Judge Hampel said: "Their [the boys'] families were active members of the congregation, and they were both altar boys. As a result you had easy access to them, and were trusted by them and their families."

The judge said that by the third year of Walker's tenure at the parish, the parents of one of the boys suspected he was abusing their son.

The judge told Walker: "They [the parents] confronted you, and you angrily counter attacked, saying to them, in the boy's hearing: 'How dare you accuse me of sleeping with your son'."

The parents (said the judge) were "cowed by the apparently outraged response of a priest, the holder of a holy office they had been brought up to respect, believe and obey."

However (said the judge) the boy soon confirmed to his mother what she and her husband had suspected was true - that the priest had been sexually abusing their son.

Judge Hampel said the boy's mother reported the matter to the then archbishop of Melbourne.

Addressing Walker, Judge Hampel said: "Although you are not to be punished for the institutional response, what happened next was scandalous, and no less so because, as is now abundantly clear, this boy was not the only victim of clerical abuse in the Melbourne archdiocese, nor the only victim whose welfare was ignored, whilst the church took active steps to protect the priest and itself.

"Although not a single step was taken by the church to protect the victim, offer him counselling or support, or report the complaint of sexual abuse by one of its ordained priests of a child in his pastoral care, to the police, you [Vears/Walker] were warned a complaint had been made, and shortly thereafter transferred to a nearby parish.

"Your response when warned was not to admit wrongdoing, apologise, surrender yourself to the police or even leave the child alone. Instead, in what can only be seen as a demonstration to the victim and his parents of their powerlessness, and a flaunting of your sense of impunity, you confronted the mother after Mass the very next Sunday.

"You challenged her for having taken the matter to the archbishop, and you continued to sexually abuse the boy."

After being transferred to a new parish, Walker again abused one of his previous victims, taking the boy to a motel to try to conceal his crime.

The two victims, now aged in their 50s, were in court to see Walker being brought to justice.

Judge Hampel praised these victims for their courage in reporting what had happened to them to the police.

The judge told the victims: "To each of you, I say: you are truly courageous men. It is the courage of those who know they suffered harm as a result of something that was not of their making, and was not their fault, but who have had the courage to keep on going and to keep on living.

"You have not given up on yourselves, or on life, although not surprisingly you both mourn the loss of the life you should have been able to enjoy, had this not happened to you. Each of you has had the courage to make your statements, and to participate in the court process.

"You may have been powerless when these offences were committed on you, but by telling your stories, you have shown you are not powerless now. The church may not have protected you when it should have, but the response of the criminal justice system, I hope, will encourage other victims of past sexual abuse to trust that complaints will be heard and investigated, and lead to those who have sexually abused children being held accountable."

Judge Hampel said Walker's crimes had been a gross abuse of trust.

The judge told Walker: "You were a priest, they were young Catholics, baptised and brought up as such. They were children of parishioners, parishioners themselves, and altar boys. To them, you represented the church, its teachings, values and moral precepts, as well as the authority the church claims over its congregation.

"The victims were young and, each in his own way, vulnerable.

"You lied and bullied your way out of exposure, and continued to offend against your second victim. You were an adult, they were children entrusted to your pastoral care, and you had the authority, for them and their parents, of a holy man, an ordained priest."

Judge Hampel said it was remarkable that the church hierarchy has still not formally stripped Walker of his priesthood.

Judge Hampel said Walker's case was one that should be examined by Australia's national Royal Commission into child abuse.

Walker was jailed for five years and will become eligible to apply for parole after three years.

Broken Rites research

Russell Vears was accepted as a trainee for the priesthood at Melbourne's Corpus Christi seminary in 1969 and was ordained in 1975.

Broken Rites was contacted in 1998 by a victim of Father Russell Vears. This victim said he had encountered Vears in a parish in a Melbourne south-eastern parish. Broken Rites searched publicly available records of the Catholic Church, and we found that (after he was ordained in 1975) Fr Russell Vears was indeed listed as an assistant priest at this south-eastern parish in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Broken Rites advised this victim to have a chat with detectives in the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse (SOCA) unit of the Victoria Police. Broken Rites gave him the phone number where he could get help from the detectives, although many victims take a long time (years, sometimes) to get around to taking advantage of the police assistance.

Broken Rites research found that, by 1979, Vears had been transferred to the Lilydale parish (in Melbourne's outer-east). By 1981, he was a chaplain at St Vincent's hospital, Melbourne.

Broken Rites discovered that, at one stage of his priestly work, Vears was under the supervision of a senior priest, Father Ronald Pickering, who was an even worse criminal than Vears. Pickering abused boys throughout his career in Melbourne parishes, while senior clerics in the Melbourne archdiocese looked the other way. The Melbourne church authorities eventually helped Pickering to flee from Australia to avoid being brought to justice.

By the late 1980s, Vears' name had disappeared from the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory. He was not listed in any directories in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, somewhere along the way, he changed his name from Russell Vears to Russell Walker.