Victims in the public gallery at yesterday’s special commission of inquiry into alleged child sex abuse cover-ups in the Catholic Church gasped audibly and were visibly shaken when two senior Hunter Catholic priests claimed to have little memory of the events surrounding paedophilia within the diocese.
Father James Saunders and Father William Burston could not respond to a number of questions put to them at the inquiry yesterday, claiming a lack of memory.
Father Saunders, who performed a number of senior roles in the diocese including being Vicar General to Bishop Michael Malone, said he knew of rumours circulating about priest Denis McAlinden’s conduct with children in the 1980s.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Warwick Hunt, asked Father Saunders why McAlinden was referred to in a “bleak fashion” in the minutes of a 1986 bishop’s consultors meeting in Maitland. The priest could not remember.
Father Saunders, who is now in his 70s and semi-retired, shared a parish with McAlinden in 1977 and remembered the then Bishop Leo Clarke warning him the priest might be a “difficult man” which he later took to mean he had a “ferocious temper”.
He said he was told by a Hunter school principal that: “You have to be careful with him [McAlinden] around children” but could not remember the date of the conversation or whether they were historic offences.
Upon his appointment to Vicar General in 2001, Father Saunders said Bishop Malone warned him about “vague assertions” to do with the behaviour of another priest, James Fletcher, but they did not “amount to significance”.
He said he could not recall whether the Bishop mentioned McAlinden but it was “unlikely that he did” and did not remember being told to track down the priest in Western Australia.
Father Saunders said he did remember the drive to Branxton with the bishop in 2003 to inform Fletcher abuse allegations had been made against him.
He said Bishop Malone told him: “If I was under investigation I would like to know”, and agreed it was “plausible” the bishop was trying the extract a confession from Fletcher.
The inquiry heard the bishop wanted Fletcher to be removed from the parish but relented under Fletcher’s “strong wishes to stay in the parish”.
Contrary to Bishop Malone’s evidence last week, Father Saunders said he could not remember the pair visiting Branxton Catholic school principal William Callinan to warn him against allowing Fletcher near students.
“That’s not denying that it happened but I can’t recall,” Father Saunders said.
He was asked about an internal church email that quoted him as saying he wanted to “contain” an allegation against Fletcher “as much as possible” and did not want to provide a dot point report of the matter.
“I can’t recall the conversation I had, therefore I cannot comment on my thought processes some nine years ago,” adding “I have no independent recall”.
When asked by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox’s counsel, Mark Cohen, whether there was a culture in the diocese of disinformation about abuse the priest said: “I wouldn’t say there was I’d have to reflect on that – I wanted to disclose as little as possible and let the police get on with their investigation.”
Father William Burston, who preceded Father Saunders as Vicar General, prompted gasps of shock and disgust from the pack public gallery when he told the inquiry he could not remember when he first heard about paedophilia within the diocese.
He said he was trying his best to assist the inquiry and was not intentionally distancing himself from the matters.