Canberra archbishop to take advice after probe into priest living near schools

Canberra archbishop to take advice after probe into priest living near schools

An agency set up by Canberra's Catholic archbishop failed to tell the principal of an ACT school a priest who "nibbled" on a child's ear had been living next door for two years under the mistaken belief it would violate privacy laws.

A risk assessment done two years after he moved in also identified it was "not ideal" to have the priest living next to the schools but said there was no alternative accommodation available.

Cnberra's Catholic archbishop, Christopher Prowse, before the royal commission.

Cnberra's Catholic archbishop, Christopher Prowse, before the royal commission.Credit:Royal commission

And the botched handling of the whole affair was compounded by misinformation given out by the archdiocese and archbishop which divided the church community.

Those are three of the findings of a long-anticipated review of the decision to place a priest stood down over sustained allegations of improper behaviour toward children in a retirement home for clergy next to two schools.


Catholic Archbishop Christopher Prowse ordered the review after Father Brian Hassett's past and his placement next to the Sts Peter and Paul Primary School and special needs school Malkara came to light.

Barrister Dr Juliet Lucy found the lack of consultation with the schools and the Catholic Education Office contributed to a decision which was "so out of keeping with community standards".

As a result, the archdiocese will establish an advisory panel to advise the archbishop going forward.

The panel must have a "reasonable" gender balance and should include experts without an affiliation to the church.

The archdiocese will also identify and maintain a list of suitable properties where priests who have been the subject of adverse allegations and findings can live. The list will be reviewed annually.

Dr Lucy found the risk assessments that were carried out were deficient and did not address the legal or reputational risk placing the priest next to the school could have.

She said the archdiocese made factual errors in its initial media response which was "counterproductive" to the handling of the story and "caused damage" to stakeholders in the church.

In a statement, Archbishop Prowse said he was "grateful" for Dr Lucy's thorough review and again apologised for the "hurt, stress and confusion" the scandal had caused.

"We accept all findings and recommendations of the independent review and are eager to fully implement them," Archbishop Prowse said.

No one has resigned over the saga but the head of the Institute for Professional Standards and Safeguarding Matt Casey will finish up on Friday.

However church officials and Mr Casey said this was a long-planned retirement with transition plans in place since last November. Maria Hicks will replace Mr Casey.

Behaviour 'unwarranted, inappropriate and overtly sexual'

In her review, Lucy identified two historical allegations against the priest from his time in Tumut.

One allegation said he had "engaged in a pattern of behaviour" towards a 16-year-old girl that "crossed professional boundaries in that it was overly personal and intimate".

The alleged behaviour included embracing the girl in public and kissing her on the cheek or on the back of the head in church.

The second, more serious of the allegations was that he had touched an 11-12 year old girl in a manner that was "unwarranted, inappropriate and overtly sexual".

This alleged behaviour included putting his arms around the girl from behind and "nibbling her ear" when alone with her in church.

Neither of the victims wanted to press charges but on March 22, 2013, the archdiocese's professional standards officer recommended a review be undertaken to see if the priest posed a risk to children in his current role.

On April 9, 2013, a professional standards officer from the archdiocese spoke to the principal of the Tumut school who appeared to be aware of the allegations.

Christopher Prowse was appointed as Archbishop in September of that year. In December, the archbishop told the priest an investigation into the historical complaints against him was under way.

In March 2014, the investigation found the allegations were sustained and the priest was stood aside, pending an assessment about his risk to children. That risk assessment was never completed.

On April 1 2014, the archbishop told the priest he had to move out of the Tumut parish and take leave while an investigation took place.

The archbishop handed the priest a decree to formally initiate the canonical process for removing a parish priest.

The priest denied through his lawyers any misconduct towards the alleged victims and said he had not been given procedural fairness.

During that meeting, it was proposed the priest move to Lanigan House while the investigation took place. At the time of the meeting he was 77 years old and had some health problems.

The Clergy Retirement Foundation helped to move the priest to Lanigan House on April 10, 2014 but were not told why he was being moved there.

On August 4 2015, the priest resigned as parish priest. A letter to Tumut parishioners published by the archbishop cited age, health and changed circumstances as reasons for his resignation. It also said he would continue to live at Lanigan House in his retirement.

In April 2016, the priest suffered a fall and was taken to hospital. In June he had been moved to a rehabilitation facility but had been discharged by August.

While the priest was in hospital, the Institute for Professional Standards and Safeguarding (IPSS) started a risk assessment - the first since the priest had been moved to Lanigan House.

A subsequent briefing the IPSS gave the principal and deputy principal of Sts Peter and Paul in May 2016 failed to addressed the allegations because of a misunderstanding of the Privacy Act. The risk assessment they were given did not address the allegations either.

The principal and deputy principal did not share this information with the Catholic Education Office under the mistaken belief the IPSS had told them already. The IPSS had not.

A member of the public phoned the principal on February 24 to tell her about the priest's past. The principal then contacted the Catholic Education Office.

The story broke on February 28. That same day, the IPSS asked the Clergy Retirement Foundation to help find new lodgings for the priest.

Misinformation led to 'suspicion'

Dr Lucy said the archbishop's initial reaction to the story caused "damage" to the community's view of the church and to relationships within it.

She said an initial media release was "misleading" in that it said "a thorough risk assessment was conducted by staff within the Institute for Professional Standards and Safeguarding and the principal at the nearby Catholic school consulted".

The IPSS did not exist when the priest was placed at Lanigan House and the principal was not told about his past.

The archbishop later repeated, wrongly, that the principal had been fully informed on ABC Radio.

"The factual error placed both the current and former principal in a difficult position as neither could correct the error without seeming to undermine the archbishop. Furthermore it subjected the current principal to hostility and suspicion from the school community," Dr Lucy said.

Dr Lucy found the archbishop's subsequent apologies in the media and at a parent's forum helped to dispel much of the distress the scandal had caused.

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.