Healing Path Reopens Old Wounds

By James Gardiner

Photo of accused Father Alan Woodcock and accused Father Tom Laffey
Accused Father Alan Woodcock
and accused Father Tom Laffey

When Mike Phillips decided it was time to clear the air about a secret that had hung over him for more than 36 years, he hoped the Catholic Church would practice the contrition and charity it preached.

Nearly a year later Phillips, who was abused by three different clergymen as a child, has nothing but scorn and anger for one arm of the church.

He is convinced they are involved in a cover-up either to protect one of their own or to protect themselves from more claims and more legal action.

Since 1998 the church has aimed for a co-ordinated response both to complaints of abuse and to news media inquiries about the allegations, but neither have happened.

Tomorrow, when the six bishops and heads of nearly 40 religious orders gather in Wellington for their annual conference, the issue of dealing with sex abuse will again be on the agenda.

Since their last meeting, some of the most serious allegations have arisen - along with evidence that at least one religious order deliberately hid the truth about a priest it moved from school to school as complaints against him continued.

That priest, Fr Alan Woodcock, of the Society of Mary, is awaiting extradition from England, to face sex charges here involving 11 boys and young men.

Because of the church's inability or unwillingness to co-operate, it is hard to get a handle on how many complaints there have been, but it almost certainly numbers in the hundreds.

Some branches are fully co-operative, others less so. Many of the priests and brothers have died - but so have victims.

Suicide is an all too common feature of victims of child sex abuse, says psychologist Dr Ian Lambie.

So too is the pattern of abuse victims becoming abusers. While abuse rates in the general population suggest 8 to 12 per cent of boys are victims, among sex abusers the rate is closer to 60 per cent.

Lambie, a senior lecturer at Auckland University and founder of the Safe programme for sex abusers, says many victims suffer depression and anxiety, and have drug and alcohol problems.

Like doctors, teachers and counsellors, religious leaders are in positions of power.

"People will always abuse positions of power, whether it's by the things they say, the things they do; whether it's sexual or non-sexual."

While publicity in the past 20 years about something rarely spoken of in the past has helped victims come forward, it has also raised awareness in potential abusers.

"As people become aware of it, they think they can get away with it. You can't stop it - you can only reduce the risk."

Nearly eight months ago, on Sunday, June 30, the New Zealand bishops for the first time went public with an admission of guilt, an apology and a pledge to put things right.

A letter was read out and distributed at every church service.

"Dear sisters and brothers in Christ," it began. "The deepening realisation of the number of cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests or religious orders is a cause of grief and shame to all of us.

"The betrayal of trust and the harm that has been done, especially to the young and the vulnerable fills us, your bishops, with a deep sense of sadness and betrayal. Jesus had exceptionally harsh words for those who offended against the innocence of children." What they were referring to appears to be the passages in Matthew (18:6) and Mark (9:42) which suggest those who believe in God and harm children might as well be drowned with a millstone round their neck.

The bishops went on to say that the vast majority of clergy had integrity and were also "suffering in spirit because of the same sense of betrayal".

The bishops apologised for their own mistakes in dealing with sex abuse claims, though did not specify what mistakes or who made them.

They referred Catholics to their procedures for dealing with sex-abuse complaints, a document called A Path to Healing - Te Houhanga Rongo first published in 1998 and revised in 2001.

"As we give you an assurance of our commitment to confront this problem with openness and transparency, we ask for your support and your prayers."

The Path to Healing document contains similarly laudable statements and policies.

Highlighted early is the sentence: "In any inquiry the quest for the truth will be paramount, and the truth when found will not be hidden." It sets out step by step how complaints should be handled. Words like compassion, sympathy, respect abound.

TERRY Carter, 36, one of the complainants in the police case against Woodcock, is scathing about the Society of Mary's handling of his complaints, laid several years ago over abuse that took place while he was a schoolboy at St Patrick's College, Silverstream.

Carter says he was terrorised and repeatedly caned by one priest at the school - who he later considered trying to murder - and was sent for counselling to Woodcock even though, as he has since discovered, the Society of Mary knew Woodcock had been the subject of previous complaints of sexually abusing boys, and had a sex conviction.

When Carter first approached the society "they flatly denied everything".

He took them to court and spent $20,000 on legal fees. They settled with him by paying him $45,000.

Carter remains bitter.

"They are the last people that should be organising their own investigation, because they're the people doing it and covering it up.

"There's cover-ups on the cover-ups. They've lied the whole way through the Woodcock case."

The Society of Mary, originally a French order of missionaries, though now based in Rome, came to New Zealand early and has traditionally been the largest order of priests.

It has shrunk dramatically. Many of its 170 members are retired and elderly. It still owns valuable property, particularly around Wellington, the lower North Island and Christchurch.

Head of the order here is the provincial Father Denis O'Hagan. His deputy, Father Tim Duckworth, has overseen most of the handling of abuse complaints.

It set up its own toll-free hot-line to receive complaints and was the first to do so.

Duckworth said it handled 175 inquiries, 50 of the callers were referred to other church branches, other churches or organisations, leaving it with 34 separate allegations, five of them against present members of the order. The others had died or left.

Twelve of the complainants had gone to the police, 11 of them in relation to Woodcock.

Duckworth requires inquiries about specific cases in writing. Typically the church spokespeople make dark suggestions that if the reporter knew all the facts about a particular complaint or complainant, they might view what was alleged differently.

Phillips called the Society of Mary's bluff and faxed through a signed and witnessed statement authorising the society to discuss any aspect of his case with the Herald.

But even then the society was not prepared to talk.

Its lawyer, Peter Connor, wrote: "The society has co-operated with the police and, up until now, with responses to your inquiries. It will not respond to requests for information about individual cases."

When Phillips' abuser, Father Tom Laffey, the parish priest at Onehunga until the complaint was laid last year, was confronted at his church-provided Auckland home, he admitted he was embarrassed about what he had done and said he wanted to apologise, but Phillips refused to meet him.

He referred other questions to his lawyer, who refused to answer them.

In fact Phillips had been prepared to meet Laffey and hear the apology, but refused the lawyer's demand that what was said remain confidential. So much for truth being paramount and not hidden.

Late last year the Weekend Herald reported how three brothers who were sexually abused as children in the 1950s and 1960s by another Catholic priest were ignored for months after laying complaints with Auckland Bishop Patrick Dunn.

Their complaint was treated seriously only when the Herald began making inquiries. Two weeks after the story appeared, Bishop Dunn flew to Perth to meet the brothers, apparently because he was not happy with the way the case was handled.

Then the church's national spokeswoman, Lyndsay Freer, revealed there had been another complaint - contrary to what she indicated earlier - about the priest, the late Father Frank Green.

Freer, according to the Path to Healing document, should be making all public statements about the handling of abuse cases, but she instead gave the names and contact numbers for five other orders who she said had dealt with abuse allegations.

One of them, the Franciscan Friars, refused to discuss the matter. Father Anthony Malone said it was "privileged information". He would not even say whether there had been complaints.

Later Freer rang back with the names of five further orders she suggested contacting.

One of them denied it had received any complaints. "No, thank God, our record here in New Zealand is clean," said Father John Griffin of the Columban Fathers.

Another, Redemptorists head Father John Airey, said some unspecific allegations had been made that did not identify either an individual or the order they belonged to.

His job was to investigate whether any of the 13 other elderly priests remaining in the order could be a culprit. Nothing had been concluded.

The Sydney-based Brothers of St John of God have dealt with a large number of complaints, both here and in Australia, and have been praised for their proactive and sympathetic approach. Another order praised for its reponsiveness is the Marist Brothers.

Part of the problem of getting a single response is the history of the church and its various orders.

Chris van de Krogt, lecturer in religious studies at Massey University, Palmerston North, did his doctorate on the Catholic Church and says there have been some rivalries over the years, even turf-wars for control over parishes.

It was not a case of a bishop or cardinal snapping his fingers and saying things would be done in a certain way.

"There's always a degree of independence with religious orders - an alternative chain of command if you like."