Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive July  6, 2012)

Fresh claims of Church Cover-Ups

By Alan Collins


Monsignor William Lynn who oversaw hundreds of priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese was found guilty on Friday 22 June 2012 of one count of endangering the welfare of a child, making him the first senior US Roman Catholic Church official to be convicted for covering up child sex abuse. 

Lynn's job was to supervise priests, including investigating sex abuse claims. Instead of considering the risk to children, the prosecution said, he chose to protect the Catholic Church from scandal and potential loss of financial support.

This week has seen the Roman Catholic Church embroiled again in claims of a cover-up over its handling of child sexual assault allegations involving priests. This time in Australia.

ABC's Four Corners program has revealed the church apparently failing to pass on abuse admissions by a priest to police. Four Corners says it obtained documents showing that a New South Wales priest, who is accused of abusing young boys, made clear admissions during a meeting with three senior priests, but they never referred the matter to police.

Following the programme police and prosecutors are launching a full investigation and, as was the case with Lynn, could face criminal charges for failing to report the offences.

The allegations centre on a priest, dubbed ‘Father F’, since defrocked but now living in Armidale. Father F testified under oath in a 2004 court case that he confessed to performing oral sex on young boys at a meeting in 1992 with Fathers Brian Lucas, John Usher and Wayne Peters.

All three, and the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, denied there was any cover-up, holding that the presence of a ''file note … does not show that he made any admission''. This account is thrown into doubt not only by Father F’s testimony but also by a letter sent by Peters eight days after the meeting with Father F. The letter to the then Bishop of Armidale says Father F was eager to admit he had ''sexually interfered'' with boys aged between 10 and 11 in the early 1980s, including oral sex.

Although Father F was made to give up his position in the Church the information was never passed to police. This deliberate and dangerous act of dealing with allegations ‘in-house’ was also seen in the Lynn trial and, would appear to be the church’s global practice.  

Lynn said that he tried to address cases of pedophile priests, by compiling a list of accused predators and writing memos to suggest treatment and suspensions. He was hampered because he could merely make recommendations to his superior, Cardinal Bevilacqua.

The prosecution used the list to show the Catholic Church was aware of priests who were sexually abusing and covered up their existence. Testimony also showed Bevilacqua ordered the list of accused priests be destroyed, although a lone copy was found in an archdiocese safe.

This cannot be considered any different to disposing of a gun following a shooting.

The former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery has spoken that there are grounds to pursue Lucas, Usher and Peters under section 316 of the NSW Crimes Act, which holds that those withholding information about an indictable offence could face two years in prison. A conviction under this would therefore, be for a crime similar to Lynn’s, as precedent is set the Catholic Church should wake up to the crimes it is responsible for.

The William Lynn case and the Father F scandal must put pay to the argument that the Catholic Church is not responsible for its priests. Questions about personal responsibility and institutional constraints within the Catholic Church hierarchy must be asked. There has been the argument that priests are “employed by god” and so no one is responsible for what they do. That argument has been whittled away over recent years, and the Lynn case may well be its last gasp.

I would argue that the Lynn case and Father F story highlights the Catholic Church’s broader responsibility for its priests and the children in its parishes, schools, and institutions. It demonstrates clearly the duty of care that is owed by it and its officials. The key points are:

·        It has to supervise priests

·        It has to report sexual abuse allegations to the priests

·        It cannot expose potential victims to the risk of sexual abuse

·        It does owe a duty of care to the children

Justice may not always, perhaps, be perfect, but many victims tell me that it is better than none and by securing it they achieved something positive.



Alan Collins is a specialist child abuse lawyer at Pannone LLP



Prime Time Crime

Contributing 2012