Paedophile priests in Melbourne were moved from parish to parish in a culture of secrecy and cover-up in which the Catholic Church was slow to act, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart said on Thursday.
A predecessor, Sir Frank Little, dealt with all complaints secretly, keeping no records. He moved paedophiles such as serial abusers Wilfred Baker and Kevin O'Donnell to "innocent parishes" where they blighted more lives, Archbishop Hart conceded at the Victorian inquiry into how the churches handled child sexual abuse.
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'Catholic church slow to act': Hart
Melbourne's Catholic Archbishop admits the church practised a culture of cover-ups over child sex abuse by paedophile priests.
"It was an awful blight on the church. I want to put my anger and pain and anguish about this to the committee."
He said before 1996, when he became Vicar-General in Melbourne and Cardinal George Pell became Archbishop, the church was "too keen to look after herself and her good name and not keen enough to look after the terrible anguish of the victims. Since the 1990s, that has changed - slowly and with agony, but it has changed."
In a public statement, Archbishop Hart said he took responsibility, but he told the inquiry the only person responsible was the archbishop at the time.
In his statement, at the end of the three-hour hearing, Archbishop Hart said: "I understand that the community is looking for someone to take responsibility for the terrible acts that occurred. I take responsibility.
"I am appalled by the actions of these criminals against the weakest and most defenceless in the community. I apologise unreservedly for one of the darkest periods in our church's history."
He agreed that the church had been slow to defrock paedophile Desmond Gannon, writing to the Vatican 18 years later in 2012 warning that the Victorian inquiry and royal commission meant the faithful would be scandalised.
Committee chairwoman Georgie Crozier asked: "It took 18 years for you to contact Rome?" Archbishop Hart replied, to gasps from the crowded public gallery: "Better late than never. We did what we could. I wish it had been earlier."
Asked about the money the church spent on lawyers and public relations consultants, the church's executive director of administration, Francis Moore declined to give even a ball-park figure, but said its communications director was paid $150,000 to $180,000 a year.
Committee member Andrea Coote said: "Victims believe you are spending money on lawyers and spin doctors but won't admit that the church covered it up. They think you spent money to protect the reputation of the church and that you continue today to perpetrate that."
Archbishop Hart: "I would reject that very strongly. Numbers of people have been in touch with me to say how the Melbourne Response has helped them."
He said the Melbourne Response protocol for victims was a sincere attempt to provide a clear evaluation, access to counselling and some financial relief.
He said the church's maximum payout under its abuse protocol, $75,000, was generous compared with state compensation. When victims did not want to accept the compensation offered, the church had "walked with them" through the court system to "more generous payouts".
Asked about warnings by church lawyers to victims that civil suits would be "strenuously defended", he said the church acted appropriately under "the rules for that forum", and disagreed that it should pay for legal advice to help victims decide.
The church had settled every case taken to courts before final judgment, which committee member David O'Brien suggested contributed to the perception that the it could not be sued.
Archbishop Hart said church records showed there had been 1748 priests in Melbourne of whom 59 had offended, or 3.375 per cent. He refused to concede to committee member Nick Wakeling that secrecy such as Archbishop Little's meant the record could not be complete, saying victims had come forward later.
"That still leaves 96 per cent [of priests] who live the celibate life, are devoted to their people and are outraged at what their fellows do," he replied.