Melbourne archbishop points finger at Vatican during hearing

Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne says that until 2001, priests found guilty of sex crimes often kept their positions because of Vatican intransigence.

Archbishop Hart told Australia’s Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that a conviction was often not sufficient to have a priest defrocked.

“There was a leaning in favour of a priest who might have been accused of something,” he said.

“We found that a conviction was not enough to have a priest laicised by Rome.”

Since 2001, Archbishop Hart said he had the power to suspend priests and recommend their being removed from the clerical state.

“Every living priest who has been convicted of sexual misconduct has been referred to Rome for laicisation,” he said.

But he admitted he only began directing suspended priests to cease wearing clerical garb in 2011.

Archbishop Hart also admitted that purportedly heartfelt letters to victims sent by himself and his predecessor then-Archbishop George Pell for a decade, were, in fact, form letters drafted by staff in consultation with lawyers, with only the names changed.

Archbishop Hart said he had been unable to know confidential details.

In the past year, he had tried to get at least some minimal information about victims’ cases so the letters could be more personal.

“It was never indicated to me that this was unhelpful. Had it been, I would have certainly acted sooner,” he said.

The letters were sent as part of settlements under the Church’s Melbourne Response, set up in 1996 to handle allegations of clergy sex abuse in the archdiocese.

Since 1996, Melbourne archdiocese has paid out about A$10 million to 326 victims without accepting liability for their child abuse claims.

Archbishop Hart said there had been a tendency to minimise sexual abuse by priests in the past.

“I would have to admit that with what we have been doing now shows that there was too much of a tendency to minimise the seriousness of the matter, and I repudiate that totally,” he said.

A controversial cap on payments to victims by Melbourne archdioceses is being reviewed by a federal judge appointed by Archbishop Hart.

The archbishop also said he regretted telling a family whose daughter had suffered horrific abuse at a Melbourne school that their civil claim would be “strenuously defended”.

The girl subsequently committed suicide.


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