By Joanne McCarthy (The Sydney Morning Herald)
July 31, 2012
NSW Police will give prosecutors evidence that three of the most senior members of the Catholic Church allegedly concealed the sexual assault of young girls in the Hunter Valley, in a landmark case that could expose the church to a new wave of criminal prosecution.
One of three people of interest in Strike Force Lantle is the general secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Father Brian Lucas, who is alleged to have been aware of the actions of the paedophile priest Denis McAlinden as far back as 1993 but failed to report him to police.
The others are Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, who wrote to police yesterday to formally decline to be interviewed, and the retired Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle Michael Malone.
From 1993 to 1995 the three had roles in internal moves against the priest, including an attempted ''speedy'', secret defrocking in October 1995 because of the evidence against him.
The church failed to report the matter to authorities until 2003, after victims notified the police and were paid compensation.
Instead, in 1995, McAlinden was assured by the then Maitland-Newcastle bishop Leo Clarke: "Your good name will be protected by the confidential nature of this process", despite "your admission to Father Brian Lucas and other evidence.
"A speedy resolution of this whole matter will be in your own good interests as I have it on very good authority that some people are threatening seriously to take this whole matter to the police," Bishop Clarke's letter said.
He urged the priest to agree to a ''speedy'' defrocking ''for the sake of souls and the good of the church'', as police were about to charge another priest, Vince Ryan, with sexually assaulting young boys over two decades. In a follow-up letter weeks later, the new Maitland-Newcastle bishop Michael Malone told McAlinden the ecclesiastical censure would proceed ''because of the gravity of the allegations against you [and] the evidence supporting those allegations''.
Bishop Malone and Father Lucas would not comment yesterday. A spokeswoman for Archbishop Wilson said it was ''not appropriate to comment and matters relating to any police inquiry should be referred to the police''.
McAlinden died in a church-run, aged-care facility in Western Australia in 2005 without facing charges. In 2007 the diocese of Maitland-Newcastle was forced to confirm McAlinden was a serial child sex offender who had targeted perhaps hundreds of girls aged 4 to 12 over at least four decades.
The Herald has confirmed that a brief of evidence and an investigator's report of the church's handling of the case will be given to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in the next few weeks.
If they are prosecuted, the Herald believes it would be the first time a church official has been charged with section 316 of the NSW Crimes Act, which makes it an offence to conceal a serious crime.
The head of Strike Force Lantle, Detective Graeme Parker, said the exhaustive 15-month investigation included recorded interviews with Father Lucas and retired Bishop Malone about their knowledge of McAlinden's activities and ''how they progressed the matter''.
He confirmed that Archbishop Wilson had declined to be interviewed.
The then Father Philip Wilson was made notary for the defrocking, and recorded the statements of two victims, including one woman who said she had been sexually abused by McAlinden ''on many occasions'' between the ages of 8 and 11.
Another woman described McAlinden's sexual abuse of her and her two daughters.
Detective Parker said: ''It's a shame because there are questions that really need to be asked of Archbishop Wilson. We made numerous attempts to get him to the table to be interviewed but he's exercised his right to silence.''
Documents with the police include a 1976 letter from the late Maitland-Newcastle monsignor Patrick Cotter to Bishop Clarke about McAlinden, in which the monsignor suggests the priest's offending is of a lesser seriousness because it involves children.
''He feels no such inclination towards mature females but towards the little ones,'' the letter said. ''I have never heard of this condition before and knowing Father McAlinden as we do, we do not think it can be real serious.''