Deeper dysfunction behind the Ellis case

Eureka Street | 02 April 2014

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.

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