Barry O’Farrell hits out at Catholic leaders over child abuse response

Former premier Barry O’Farrell accused Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright of ‘‘spin’’ in a speech to NSW Parliament. Photo: Ben Rushton Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright has been touted as a potential successor to Cardinal George Pell as Sydney Archbishop. Photo: Darren Pateman

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is under pressure to show ‘‘Catholic leadership’’ after the Church’s response to an extraordinary broadside from former premier Barry O’Farrell over the Hunter’s damning history of child sexual abuse.

Mr O’Farrell accused Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Bill Wright of ‘‘spin’’, and slammed former bishop Michael Malone and Australian Bishops Conference general secretary Brian Lucas for their ‘‘criminal inaction’’ over Hunter paedophile priest Denis McAlinden, in a speech to NSW Parliament on Tuesday night.

It came after the tabling of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry report into NSW Police and Catholic Church handling of allegations involving McAlinden and a second Hunter paedophile priest, Jim Fletcher.

The failure of Father Lucas and Bishop Malone to report McAlinden to police from 1993 was ‘‘inexcusable and unacceptable in anyone, but I find it unbelievable, abominable and, frankly, un-Christian when it is found amongst so-called ‘men of the cloth’,’’ Mr O’Farrell said.

But his call for Australia’s Catholic bishops to take a ‘‘strong stand’’ and remove Father Lucas fell on deaf ears.

In a short statement to the Newcastle Herald yesterday, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said Father Lucas ‘‘has the support of the bishops’’, because ‘‘the report did not make adverse findings as to credit, nor did it recommend any action be taken with respect to Father Lucas’’.

The bishops’ refusal to take action showed it was time for Tony Abbott to show ‘‘Catholic leadership’’ within his Church, and back Catholics who were demanding significant and lasting change, Hunter Clergy Abused Network spokesman Bob O’Toole said.

Mr O’Farrell told NSW Parliament on Tuesday that he supported the Clergy Abused network’s call for Sacred Heart Cathedral Monsignor Alan Hart to retire or resign over his failure to report McAlinden to police in 1993, when he became aware he had sexually abused a young girl.

Mr O’Toole said Mr O’Farrell was speaking on behalf of average Australians who were sickened by the findings of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, and the truths being exposed by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

‘‘We need people like Barry O’Farrell to speak out. We need Tony Abbott to show Catholic leadership because he’s a well known Catholic,’’ Mr O’Toole said.

‘‘He really should be out there saying something because as we can see, the Church won’t act on its own, despite the truth being out there.

‘‘I’d call on any high profile Catholic to stand up and be counted. Are they going to just sit there and leave the Church to call the shots, or are they going to make the Church accountable?’’

A spokesman for NSW Premier Mike Baird declined to comment about Mr O’Farrell’s speech. Mr Abbott’s office did not respond to questions.

Bishop Wright did not reply to a Herald request for an interview after Mr O’Farrell accused him of ‘‘spin’’ over statements made in the wake of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry report, with its adverse findings against a number of Hunter priests and former bishops.

The bishop’s removal of Monsignor Hart and Father Bill Burston from committees was a ‘‘completely underwhelming’’ response to such a damning report, he said.

The bishop has told meetings of parishioners in the Newcastle area in the past week that he will form an ‘‘independent’’ committee to advise him what to do about calls for Monsignor Hart and Father Burston to be retired as priests.

Mr O’Toole and his wife challenged the bishop at one of the meetings, after the bishop indicated there were difficulties about standing the priests down.

‘‘The problem is these people, these priests, are still in a position of power, and the bishop and the Church just don’t seem to understand that,’’ Mr O’Toole said.

Newcastle Herald

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