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Priests in child sex abuse ‘cover up’ allowed to retire

TWO senior Catholic priests have stood down from the church after being criticised in a damning report from a state inquiry set up to examine the alleged cover-up of child abuse in the NSW Hunter Valley.
The men, former vicars-­general of the Catholic diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, retired after a church advisory panel upheld the findings of last year’s special commission of inquiry led by Margaret Cunneen SC.
Monsignor Allan Hart was found by the commission to have given “misleading” evidence in relation to his “central role” in the diocese’s handling of allegations against a serial child-abuser, Denis McAlinden, during the early 1990s.
He was also found to have known about the church’s decis­ion to send McAlinden to Eng­land after the allegations against him came to light. McAlinden, who sexually abused dozens of young girls, died in 2005 before he could be charged by police.
Reverend William Burston, who succeeded Monsignor Hart as vicar-general in 1996, was found by the commission to be “an unimpressive witness” who used the phrase “I can’t recall” or similar terms more than 60 times while on the witness stand.
His “complete absence of recollection in relation to many ­matters concerning McAlinden … was in stark contrast with his sharp and specific recollection of things that might be perceived as tending to explain his past conduct”, the commission found.
A former bishop, the late Leo Clarke, was found to have known about McAlinden’s child abuse decades earlier, but withheld this from police. “Clarke did not want to notify police or any church outsiders about problems associated with McAlinden lest it bring scandal on the church,” the commission found.
Current Maitland-Newcastle bishop Bill Wright established a review panel chaired by a former judge of the NSW Court of Appeal, Ken Handley, to consider the commission’s findings in June last year.
The panel received more than 70 further submissions from the public, reflecting the depth of feeling in the diocese, which has been traumatised by the revelation of widespread historical child abuse committed by its priests.
The panel’s advice, released this morning, shows it found both Monsignor Hart and Reverend Burston “had a case to answer”, telling them it saw “no reason ... to disagree with any of (the commission’s) findings”.
Monsignor Hart tendered his retirement while in hospital, where he had been taken for emergency surgery after being notified of the panel’s likely findings. The panel advised Bishop Wright to ask Reverend Burston to retire, although he is likely to continue preaching until Easter.
Bishop Wright said the decis­ion to allow the priests to retire was an “appropriate penalty”.
“There will be those in the community who will say, ‘No, it’s not enough’. Equally, there will be those who say, ‘Neither of these men are guilty of (a crime). What are they being punished for?’.”
With the abuse royal commission due to hold priv­ate hearings in Newcastle later this month, Bishop Wright said the priests’ ­retirement “does not draw a line under this for us”. The scandal “will not kill the diocese, nor can the diocese kill it. This is the truth, it’s the truth we live with, it’s a very hard truth … we will bear it’’.

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