Deeper dysfunction behind the Ellis case


Accused priests Chrysostom Alexander, Gregory Brusey, Aidan Duggan and Edward Delepine (BBC)In late 2004, two years into the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney's botched handling of a sexual abuse complaint against priest Aidan Duggan, the executive director of the Catholic Church's National Committee for Professional Standards, Julian McDonald, did something extraordinary. He inquired into whether Duggan, prior to joining the Sydney Archdiocese in 1974, had form.

This would not have been within McDonald's usual ambit, but Duggan's accuser, John Ellis, had requested the NCPS review the archdiocese's handling of his case — a process stymied early on the basis the archdiocese had no record of other allegations against Duggan, deemed too senile to answer the allegations.

In October 2004, McDonald emailed the Child Protection Office of the Catholic Church in Ireland. A month later he emailed John Mone, the recently retired bishop of Paisley in Scotland. Then, in mid-January 2005, he emailed the director of St Margaret's Children and Family Care Society, a voluntary adoption agency in Glasgow.

He asked that records be checked for any allegations against Duggan, 'who was born in Scotland and became a Cistercian monk, ministering in Scotland for some years before leaving the Cistercians and coming to Australia where he was incardinated into the Archdiocese of Sydney'.

McDonald's letter was promptly referred to the bishop of Galloway, John Cunningham, who responded on 25 January 2005. 'It will be very difficult for me to be of much help to you, given the lack of information regarding the matter about which you enquire,' Cunningham wrote. There was no indication as to when Duggan was in Scotland or the circumstances of his incardination in Sydney. 'Your letter simply says that he was a Cistercian monk and indicates that he was ministering in Scotland, which seems strange as Cistercian monks normally live an enclosed life. Any information regarding these matters would be of help to me.'

This correspondence is now public as evidence before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It barely raised a ripple in the cross-examination of archdiocesan officials and lawyers over how and why it managed to first dismiss the complaint, in defiance of the Church's own Towards Healing protocols, then aggressively dispute what its own assessment had accepted to be true. But it is an oddity: the only evidence of a Church official actively attempting to check Duggan's past; an attempt destined to fail.

For McDonald's information was both scant and misleading. Duggan was not a Cistercian but a Benedictine monk, ordained at St Patrick's Seminary, Manly, in 1950. He spent about four years at the Benedictine abbey in New Norcia, Western Australia, then moved in 1954 to the Benedictine abbey at Fort Augustus, on the shore of Loch Ness. Before returning to Sydney in 1974, he served at the Fort Augustus Abbey School, had been chaplain to Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire and parish priest in Fort Augustus, Invergarry and Invermoriston.

This information was known to the Sydney Archdiocese, and to its lawyers, who proposed making no enquiries. 'The onus is on Ellis to prove his assertions', Corrs senior associate John Dalzell told Michael Casey, private secretary to Cardinal Pell, 'there is no onus for us to show the good character of the Reverend Father.'

It is one thing for a defence lawyer to argue that; but is that good enough for an organisation that makes a special claim as a repository of truth? Should not an allegation as serious as child sexual abuse prompt even the most basic steps of inquiry as part of a commitment to seeking the truth?

Proper inquiries directed to the right quarters might have given Church authorities in Australia and Scotland a whiff of the scandal exposed in July 2013, when the BBC aired allegations the Fort Augustus abbey was a 'dumping ground' for Benedictine monks with a history of sexual predation.

Duggan was one of the pedophiles identified by former students of the abbey school. So were two other Australian monks who ended up in Sydney: Duggan's own brother, Fabian, who died last year on the very day the BBC put to him the accusations arising from its investigation, and Daniel Chrysostom Alexander, whose priestly faculties were suspended by the archdiocese due to the BBC investigation.

It is now known that moving accused clerical sex abusers from one jurisdiction to another was far from uncommon. It is also known, from evidence to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry last year and elsewhere, that bishops were not above destroying evidence. In other cases, language could be so delicate as to obscure the true nature of offences.

Even if Duggan's file held no explicit allegations against him, one aspect that might have raised questions was the odd jurisdictional limbo in which he operated for 16 years. He was accepted into the Sydney Archdiocese in 1974 ad experimentum (on probation) but not incardinated (formally made a priest of the diocese) until 1990.

Piecing together second-hand references to Duggan's record in documents made public by the Royal Commission, it appears his return to Sydney was not exactly with his superior's blessing.

For several years his abbot tried to persuade Duggan and his brother to return to Scotland. In August 1976, the abbot wrote: 'I must make it quite clear that I will accept no responsibility for either of you, or for your activities, while you are absent from the monastery.' It is quite unclear that Duggan had the letters of commendation required by canon law for him to be permitted to minister in the Archdiocese.

Even by the Church's sometimes glacial approach to administration, a probation period of 16 years might be regarded as unusual. But rather than prompting further enquiry, Duggan's irregular status became a further defence against accepting liability. As Corrs senior partner Paul McCann informed Ellis's lawyers, Duggan 'was not in the service of the Archdiocese of Sydney' but 'an active member of the Order of St Benedict' and 'not bound to follow instructions of the Archbishop of Sydney' — statements contrary to canon law.

In his evidence to the Royal Commission, Pell suggested the Vatican's belated recognition of the gravity of the clerical sex abuse scandal was due to an attitude that viewed accusations as an attack on the Church by its enemies, and tended 'to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant rather than to listen seriously to the complaints'. His own evidence was replete with concessions as to what he now accepts as the right and moral response to sexual abuse complaints, in contrast to what was done, or not done, in the Ellis case.

Differing conclusions will be drawn about the credibility of his recollections, but it is hard to avoid the impression that, whether by deliberate calculation, incompetence or organisational dysfunction, the overriding priorities were protecting the Church's material assets and public reputation — priorities not nearly far enough from the very mindset that led to this scandal in the first place.

Tim Wallace headshotTim Wallace is a Melbourne-based journalist. He has worked for The Canberra Times, Australian Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey and others. In 2011 he was associate editor of The Record, the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Perth.

Pictured: Accused priests Chrysostom Alexander, Gregory Brusey, Aidan Duggan and Edward Delepine (BBC)

Topic tags: Tim Wallace, John Ellis, Royal Commission, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

The shameful detail of the Ellis case will have lasting effects on the Catholic Church and the standing of Cardinal Pell and his record as Archbishop of Sydney - it will follow him to Rome. The crass, hamfisted approach to, and unchristian handling of, John Ellis's complaints against his abuser is a scandal in itself and highlights the very real presence of clericalism in the Church that still exists today. We need to put Christ and His message back front and centre ... the current Teaching, Leadership and Sanctification of the Church - let alone compassionate, just support of those who have been sexually abused by Church personnel, are in dire need of major change. Any power hungry Clerics, Religious and some misguided lay people seeking self aggrandisement in positions of prestige in the Church should be given short shrift and removed from authority. Let us hope that the atmosphere of change that the humble, evangelising spirit that Pope Francis has engendered enables the urgent reorientated, reinvigorated renewal that is so sorely needed in the Church. May Christ's message be received by the whole world and fulfill God's plan for His creation. Pace e bene, T.J.Fizgerald

Terry Fitzgerald | 03 April 2014  

It's that seemingly so unchristian management by a supposed "repostory of truth" that angers me in this and many like claims. Will the Melbourne Response stage of this RC be based upon a Case Study of the Fosters ? When Counsel Assisitng on day two of Pell's three days enquired how he NOW felt, the Eminent witness replied: "Regret ." Gail Furness SC paused - I think taken aback? - and asked "Is that all?" She did not have standing to follow up with queries as to how the Towards Healing Ellis episode squared with the Gospel.

Peter Wearne | 03 April 2014  

"is that good enough for an organisation that makes a special claim as a repository of truth?"................ Obviously not. Then there is a further question: Should the Church seek to shelter behind Traditions that did not originate till more than 300 years after its inception , and which are at odds with its original and fundamental principles? The Gospels, on which much of the Status of the Church is based, were fabricated by well-meaning but superstitious Greek converts of Paul and by political-minded Roman Clerks. Their suppositions became our "Traditions", into the defence of which too much of our resources are expended, at the expense of both Truth and Charity. The "Church" has become almost an Idol which detracts from our devotion to God.

Robert Liddy | 03 April 2014  

"Botched" by the lawyers it seems, who from your article are clearly the main offenders here.

Name | 03 April 2014  

Botched by the lawyers... clearly the main offenders here, says (Name). That's an extraordinary reading of Tim Wallace's article. Did you not read: - "bishops were not above destroying evidence" - church information about Father Duggan was "both scant and misleading" - "It is one thing for a defence lawyer to argue that; but is that good enough for an organisation that makes a special claim as a repository of truth?" - "moving accused clerical sex abusers from one jurisdiction to another was far from uncommon" - "it is hard to avoid the impression that, whether by deliberate calculation, incompetence or organisational dysfunction, the overriding priorities were protecting the Church's material assets and public reputation"? How can the article be interpreted as dumping on the church's lawyers?

Frank Golding | 03 April 2014  

Fort Augustus Abbey and the attached school (now both defunct) seem to have been an horrific sort of Paedophilia Central reading the British press and watching some of the available BBC clips. Particularly chilling was a clip of Daniel Chrysostom Alexander being accosted at his front door by a reporter from BBC Scotland after which aforesaid reporter rhetorically asked "Man of God?" and answered "He's nae Man of God".

Edward Fido | 03 April 2014  

Thank you for bringing this history re Duggan and Scotland to light. It just gets worse and worse...

Jennifer Herrick | 03 April 2014  

Great article Same old , same old. Our families need to trust the church.. Have you found a mate yet?

geri lykes | 03 April 2014  

Pell's actions in Melbourne bore fruit because of the engagement of Catholics in the legal system who had a point of view that was obviously shared by the male Catholic Church Clerics including the Papal Nuncios. Intimidation (The Foster's case), rehearsed memory loss, confrontation of victims and their families, secrecy, denial, use of power and control of information all led to a culture of bullying and deception. Little chance of an improvement given the non existent reach out to any of the previous victims and the ongoing farce unfolding in Adelaide.

Laurie | 03 April 2014  

Excellent article, Tim. The RC and its various hearings, along with the Scotland backgrounder bits that you've discovered, just seem to amount to the gift that keeps on giving. I doubt journalists could possibly leave this story alone for the decade or more it should be on the agenda. There's just too much horror, despair, life, destroyed futures and families, and abject disappointment from the silent masses that hopefully leads to anger. Hopefully, we'll "all grow a pair" and rise up to storm the Bastille. I hear the commissioners are struggling with the unexpected volume of those coming forward with terrible cases .... (I have two cases and an upcoming session with a commissioner). And some come forward on behalf of the many who have turned to suicide (40 in Pell's old diocese of Ballarat alone). What kind of church is this? It's certainly not mine anymore. As my wise godfather said so many years ago: "Keep the faith, but be awfully wary of the hierarchy." It's high time all Catholics gained an education on all the goings on and started thinking for themselves. If they can't think for themselves after years of being told not to, perhaps they could think of the little children preyed upon by scum in priestly/religious attire and reasses their priorities. It's been a rare few months of unfettered information (except the reported absence of documents 'destroyed by bishops') we know which bits are rubbish, obfuscations, untruths and, goodness, all that buck-passing! Shameful.

Kate | 04 April 2014  

""Botched" by the lawyers it seems, who from your article are clearly the main offenders here. Name." "How can the article be interpreted as dumping on the church's lawyers? Frank Golding" Because though not necessarily the main offenders Frank lawyers were complicit and as we know advised officials to hold the line and hold out. As I recall the Jesuit provincial said this is how his order was advised by their lawyer on national TV. The Church could not just be deviant on its own, anymore than any despot could manage to do it all by themselves, they need supporters, corrupt officials and paid hangers on. These problems are systemic and involve coverups by victims, peers of victims, parents, teachers, headmasters, police,doctors, lawyers and a raft of others as well as ambient cultural issues like clericalism. Pell may be all kinds of things but he could not do it on his own.

Name | 04 April 2014  

As a former pupil of Fort Augustus Abbey School in the 60s, I knew all of the priests currently being investigated. We knew nothing of their activities at the time and I assumed that the Australian monks had returned to the Sydney diocese when the Abbey was closed in 1998. Subsequent information reveals that they left earlier and for very different reasons. Unfortunately I have to agree with this report's conclusions, namely that the church was throughout more concerned with the reputation of the institution than with the interests of the alleged victims. The general lack of communication within the church authorities was certainly not helped by the independent status of the Benedictine communities. This seems to have allowed the offending priests to move around the world without too many questions being asked. We now know some of the answers but that is little consolation to the accusers in this sorry case.

Adam Dabrowski | 14 August 2015  

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