Lateline would have a great scoop – if story was actually true

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Gail Furness, senior counsel, stands in front of a screen displaying Cardinal George Pell as he holds a Bible while appearing via video link from a hotel in Rome, Italy, to testify at the Royal Commission Into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse on 29 February. Photo: CNS/Reuters handout
Gail Furness, senior counsel, stands in front of a screen displaying Cardinal George Pell as he holds a Bible while appearing via video link from a hotel in Rome, Italy, to testify at the Royal Commission Into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse on 29 February. Photo: CNS/Reuters handout

On a recent episode of ABC ‘s Lateline, a number of serious accusations were made against Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop Denis Hart and the Church more broadly.

The first related to the parish of Doveton, which had a succession of offending clergy as parish priests, including Fr Peter Searson who was there for a period of 13 years until being removed by then-Archbishop George Pell.

Former head of the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s Pastoral Response Office, Helen Last, told Lateline that her team’s pastoral work in Doveton was shut down by then-Archbishop Pell and then-Monsignor Denis Hart, who was Vicar General at the time.

It was said that Cardinal Pell “personally stopped” Ms Last from going to Doveton parish to investigate and provide care to Searson’s victims. Ms Last said “they” did not want the pastoral work to start at Doveton because ‘they’ did not want the terrible trauma to be uncovered.

Lateline then “revealed” letters from Archbishop Pell and Monsignor Hart to Ms Last, advising her that there was no need for the Pastoral Response Office to be involved because the situation was under control.

This is where the story begins to fall over. The letters were both dated in April 1997, which was after Searson’s suspension from ministry on 14 March, 1997, following an investigation by Peter O’Callaghan QC under the newly-established Melbourne Response and confirmation of this to media by Archbishop Pell.

The suggestion that the work of the Pastoral Research Office was stopped out of a desire to cease its staff “uncovering” what had happened is not borne out on the facts.

Searson was gone, Cardinal Pell had told the media Searson was gone – and he told them why!

The more likely reason for the cessation of the Pastoral Research Office’s work was that it was superseded by the work of Carelink, which was established in October 1996 as part of the Melbourne Response. Carelink provides free counselling and other support services to primary and secondary victims of abuse.

Initial co-ordinator of Carelink, psychologist Sue Sharkey, told the Royal Commission that Carelink provided administration and guidance for treatment of victims, not treatment itself, because clients had varying needs and so required specialists to be chosen according to their specific issues.

The separation between the provision of treatment and the Archdiocese was intentional and considered. It was not about shutting down the pastoral work, but about ensuring it was provided by the most appropriate person or persons (as the individual need dictated.)

Evidence before the Commission was that Ms Last was involved in the discussions to establish the Melbourne Response, making it likely she would have known the reason CareLink was set up in that way.

The other accusation made on the program was that there were secret files in the Archdiocese, marked “never to be opened” (colloquially known as the “red” files). Ms Last called for the subpoenaing of all the Church’s red files.

But there’s a problem with this accusation: the ‘secret’ files are not so secret.

Archbishop Denis Hart spoke openly about them in his testimony before the Royal Commission in November 2015, telling the Commission they had all been given to Peter O’Callaghan as part of the Melbourne Response.

And following the screening of the Lateline episode, the Archdiocese of Melbourne clarified matters even further, confirming the archdiocese had provided the Commission with all complaint and personnel files and other documents in full compliance with the requirements of the Royal Commission.

In relation to accusations that confidential documents had been sent to the Vatican – beyond the reach of the Royal Commission – the archdiocese repeated what has been said before: while copies of some documents have been provided to the Vatican, the originals remain in the possession of the archdiocese, except where the Royal Commission or the Police have requested those original files.

In summary, the accusations made on Lateline were unfounded.

I’ve said it numerous times before but it bears repeating: false allegations like this are harmful, not only to the Church but to survivors and others.

In its findings on the Melbourne Response, the Royal Commission said that it lacked sufficient independence. The commission did not find that any outcome was compromised, but said that the real issue was perception. It said that a perception of conflict could seriously challenge a survivor’s trust.

The commission is telling us that the perception of wrongdoing, even if no wrongdoing exists, can be harmful.

Those who make or broadcast allegations which are obviously and demonstrably baseless with even a cursory look at the evidence before the Royal Commission and the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry need to take responsibility for their role in creating a climate of distrust and the associated harm it causes.

It might garner viewers, but it is not serving anyone – except maybe the broadcaster.

Yes, the Church can and must do better. But so can and must the media.