'Pushing the boundaries': Church loses track of abusive priests

The Catholic Church is allowing paedophile priests to live anonymously in the community with limited supervision and has ignored warnings about their misconduct.

The Sunday Age can also reveal one of Victoria's top Catholic officials, Bishop Les Tomlinson, has conducted mass alongside a priest banned from public ministry for committing acts of sexual abuse.

An investigation into the Melbourne archdiocese's program for managing sex offenders within its ranks has found:

  • The church is uncertain how many abusive priests are under its supervision
  • No written policy for managing sex offenders exists despite the church identifying dozens of predator priests since the start of the Melbourne response victim compensation scheme in 1996
  • Priests who have left the church's jurisdiction without permission or ignore directives from superiors about their conduct are still being financially supported and protected
  • Parishioners are unaware priests have been banned from public ministry for sexual misconduct because the information is being withheld or removed

A spokesman for the Melbourne archdiocese said risk assessments were conducted for each priest found to be an abuser and the church was "committed to managing these people responsibly".

"Each case is obviously quite different with many of these people now very old indeed. Most, however, are under varied levels of supervision or monitoring as best we are able," director of communications Shane Healy said.

But a Sunday Age investigation has found the archdiocese was unable to state how many known paedophile priests were under its jurisdiction as recently as this week.

Documents tendered to the Royal Commission on child sexual abuse show 84 priests have been the subject of one or more claims or substantiated complaints of child sexual abuse under the church's Melbourne Response scheme.

The identity of 15 priests are known because they were convicted in a criminal court, most of whom are now deceased or in prison.

In January, after a query from The Sunday Age, the archdiocese admitted it did not know how many of the other 69 alleged and known offenders were still alive but believed "many of them have died".

The archdiocese has since provided three different estimates for the number of priests found to have committed abuse under the Melbourne Response that are still in the community.

On Friday, the archdiocese said it could finally confirm 10 priests with substantiated sexual abuse claims were still alive, three of whom live overseas.

The archdiocese has refused to explain the discrepancies in its figures.

The identities of most are unknown to the public as the archdiocese has historically failed to inform parishioners that a priest or former priest has been the subject of a finding of sexual abuse under the Melbourne Response.

Names and information about disgraced priests are also removed from the Official Directory of the Catholic Church in Australia.

Under canon law, priests accused of abuse are placed on "administrative leave" pending an investigation by the church's independent commissioner.

Those found to be abusers are permanently banned from engaging in any public ministry – conducting mass, last rites, blessings, weddings or funerals – which is called a "withdrawal of faculties". However, they technically remain under the jurisdiction of the church and are eligible to receive financial support.

The Melbourne archdiocese reports that eight of the 10 priests have been subjected to this sanction, with another "laicised" or ejected from the priesthood altogether.

But The Sunday Age has found one priest has repeatedly flouted his ban, participating in public religious activities with the approval of senior figures in the church and avoided serious punishment for other reported violations.

Father Joseph "Joe" Doyle, former parish priest of Bayswater, was found by the independent commissioner Peter O'Callaghan in the mid-2000s to have committed "acts of sexual abuse" and barred from ministry.

Priests who are placed on administrative leave or stripped of their faculties are placed under the supervision of the vicar-general, who is responsible for monitoring their activities and providing financial support.

Yet vicar-general Bishop Les Tomlinson conducted a mass alongside Father Doyle in early 2012, posing for a photo together next to the church altar.

In 2013, a complaint about Father Doyle flouting his ban was made to Archbishop Denis Hart, who claimed he could do little about his conduct.

"Joe has been pushing the boundaries. I think he is in denial about the seriousness of what has happened and I suspect that this playing down of the seriousness may be shared by some of his confreres," Archbishop Hart wrote in a letter obtained by The Sunday Age.

"I have acted with the strongest resolve in these matters but Joe has been particularly difficult. I do not have the power to laicise a priest."

The archdiocese reports Father Doyle, who currently lives in private rental accommodation in the suburbs, was "spoken to" again in 2015 following another complaint about inappropriate behaviour.

In another case, Father Peter Grasby, who was placed on "administrative leave" in 2012 following accusations of abusing a 10 to 14 year-old boy, moved to Malaysia against the orders of Archbishop Hart. He is still receiving private health insurance coverage from the archdiocese.

Father Mato Krizanac, who was placed on "administrative leave" over a substantiated abuse complaint in 2014, has resumed his duties in Bosnia with the apparent permission of the Archbishop of Sarajevo. The Melbourne archdiocese says it does not support him financially.

Mr Healy said priests living in the archdiocese were being monitored by church sanctioned-officials with "appropriate qualifications, training and experience", including a retired senior police officer who specialised in sex offenders management.

"[It is] an imperfect but satisfactory system," Mr Healy said.

However, the archdiocese has also admitted it has no written policy or protocols for managing sex offenders despite establishing the Melbourne Response two decades ago.

Priests who violate their ban may receive a verbal warning from the archbishop, withdrawal of any funding support, or be referred to Rome for punishment like laicisation.

There is also the option to seek a "precept" against the priest, which allows an archbishop to set conditions on where they can live and restrict their movements, including having contact with the public and children.

The archdiocese said such "safety plans" had been used in certain situations but were not commonly applied for those found to be abusers under the Melbourne Response. They have most often be used to manage priests convicted of sex crimes in a criminal court.

The Archdiocese of Melbourne declined to comment on the photo of Father Doyle at mass. Bishop Tomlinson did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr Healy said it was now church policy for a notification to be made to a parish when a priest is placed on "administrative leave" over sexual abuse allegations.

However, this does not apply to dozens of priests who are the subject of past findings under the Melbourne Response.