Victims of some of the worst sexual abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church are being denied access to a vast archive of clergy crime, as the church continues to ensure the offending is kept secret, despite the files being handed over to the royal commission.
The nearly 2000 files – which include evidence about at least 63 offenders – have been amassed by the church’s insurers, but the church appears intent on paying millions of dollars in victims compensation settlements to ensure the documents are not made public.
Angry victims and their lawyers have called on Catholic Church Insurance Ltd to make the archive public to enable investigation of potential criminal cover-ups and to assist victims in dealing with their abuse and to seek compensation.
The information was collected in the 1990s as the insurance company took steps to manage the risk posed by an increasing number of victims coming forward to claim compensation.
The insurer’s inquiries aimed to determine exactly when church authorities were first alerted to a paedophile behaviour by clergy. The dates were vital as the insurer did not have to provide coverage for crimes committed after the date church authorities had official “knowledge” an individual was an abuser.
Such information is also of extraordinary value to victims seeking to find out what the church knew about their alleged abuse and subsequent liability, as well as for criminal investigations into the concealment of crimes.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse last week confirmed it has received the files, but declined to comment further about requests to make the information public.
A spokeswoman for the Catholic Church referred all queries on the matter to the insurance company, while a spokesman for CCI said the insurer declined to comment.
During its 1990s efforts to obtain this information, Catholic Church Insurance called for specific complaints to be detailed and undertook its own investigations, often interviewing high-level church authorities about potential risks and the offenders who spoke freely as the information was considered highly confidential. Transcripts of the interviews were then filed away.
Dioceses were also asked to provide lists of potential offenders and the date the crimes were first reported to Catholic Church Insurance. Special forms titled “Special Issues Incident Report” were sent to dioceses to record specific instances of abuse.
“We need to have updated information on all matters which may give rise to criminal sexual misconduct. Your cooperation is requested in completing this form in relation to all known incidents which may later become subject to claims or litigation,” says the wording on one of the forms since made public.
Lawyers representing abuse victims say they now know to seek access to the documents using legal procedures, but when they zero in on particularly damning records, the church settles.
“The settlements have happened on dozens and dozens of occasions,” said lawyer Jason Parkinson from Porters Lawyers, which has run more than 800 cases against the church and is dealing with some 200 ongoing matters.
“Whenever we have been seeking documents that will assist their case against the Catholic Church, the insurance documents are never produced and whenever we get close the matters are settled,” he said. “The material we are after from the insurers are the records which show who and when, which priests and brothers were sexually assaulting children.
“The legal exceptions to providing that information should only be in relation to commercial-in-confidence and perhaps trademark protection but this relates to conspiracies to commit the most heinous of crimes short of manslaughter and murder – the sexual abuse of children.”
His call is backed by Anthony Foster whose two daughters Emma and Katie were raped by paedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell. Emma committed suicide, Katie is in a wheelchair after being hit by a car.
Mr Foster described it as “shocking” that the information was being kept secret.
“This should be made public. The whole sordid affair should be opened up. The more transparent it is the more victims will come forward,” he said. “This is all about providing openness, which is the opposite of how these crimes occurred in the first place – behind closed doors.”
Evidence of the archive first surfaced in the 2014 Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations. Then Catholic Church Insurance boss Peter Rush admitted to the inquiry there was a list of clergy for which the insurer would not provide cover.
Mr Rush confirmed two names on the list were serial paedophiles Gerald Ridsdale and Father Michael Glennon. Ridsdale is serving eight years jail for abusing 53 children. Glennon died in prison after being sentenced to at least 10 years for abusing children as young as seven.
Mr Rush promised to provide the list to the inquiry but it has not been made public. The insurance company has refused to provide any details of the handover.
Further evidence of the extent of the archive has emerged in the ongoing Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, with various examples of the transcripts and forms posted publicly as exhibits.
Some provide examples of potential criminal cover-ups by those who were aware of crimes and shifted paedophiles to other areas where they continued their abuse.
One transcript held by Catholic Church Insurance is a 1993 interview with the then Bishop of Ballarat Ronald Mulkearns about Ridsdale.
Discussing responses to complaints about Ridsdale, the bishop describes the paedophile as “an extraordinarily talented fellow” and “an excellent pastor”. Bishop Mulkearns argues he was not responsible for Ridsdale going on to abuse more children because he had referred Ridsdale to a counsellor who then authorised him to return to duties.
Another example of the value of such information to victims can be found in a CCI document where the insurer’s representative interviews another priest about the activities of paedophile Father Ron Pickering.
That conversation reveals Pickering – who abused Victorian children and then escaped justice by fleeing to the United Kingdom – had substantial assets in Australia including a tenanted shop in Melbourne, a farm and a property in Victoria, and a house with five acres in Tasmania – something victims may have found important when seeking compensation.
An unreported crime is exposed in another insurance document relating to Father Barry Robinson who had admitted to abuse in the United States and Chile before being returned to Victoria and allowed to work as a fill-in priest as recently as 2010. When it emerged he was still working the church defended his work as a fill-in priest arguing Robinson had never been convicted.
A Catholic Church Insurance risk management claim form reveals Robinson had previously also confessed to sexually abusing a child in the United Kingdom – an unreported incident. Robinson died in 2014.
The full scale of the archive only became apparent last year when the royal commission openly made a specific request to access the files in relation to a number of dioceses and paedophiles of which the church “had prior knowledge”.
Catholic Church Insurance failed to meet the two-month deadline to provide the information. At a directions hearing in Sydney in July 2015, the commission heard there were 1960 files that related to 63 offenders.
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