A Greta-Branxton Catholic school principal has rejected former Maitland-Newcastle Diocese bishop Michael Malone’s account of a 2002 meeting in which the bishop claimed he warned the principal to keep parish priest James Fletcher away from students.
William Callinan told the special commission of inquiry into alleged cover-ups of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, that he first heard of the alleged meeting when Bishop Malone called him “out of the blue” in March 2003.
The principal said Bishop Malone told him Fletcher should have been stood down earlier, that they (Callinan and the bishop) made a decision together in 2002 to keep Fletcher in the parish and instructed him to tell people Fletcher was sick and about to be stood down.
“I was in disbelief – I could not recall any conversation we had previously on the Fletcher situation ... I think I would have remembered it because it’s not often a bishop visits you,” Mr Callinan told the inquiry.
He said it was his regular practise to write names in his desk diary and there was no record of a meeting at the school with Bishop Malone in March.
Several months later Mr Callinan said his wife received a pastoral letter to pass onto him while she was at church.
The message from Bishop Malone said Fletcher would be stood down and that in 2002 he had consulted with the church’s professional standards office, Catholic schools office and Mr Callinan about the matters.
Counsel assisting the inquiry, Warwick Hunt, asked Mr Callinan why he did not confront the bishop about the letter if he believed there was no meeting.
“[There were] untruths in the letter ... I was concerned about my position as principal of the school,” Mr Callinan said.
He said he did not believe the bishop was going to retract the letter which had already gone out to parishes in the diocese.
Mr Hunt asked Mr Callinan if he had told the bishop he did not believe the allegations against Fletcher and that someone was out to get the priest.
He replied, “No.”
Mr Callinan was further asked if the bishop had told him to be careful while the Fletcher investigation was going on and to make sure the priest stayed away from the school.
Mr Callinan again replied, “No.”
Under cross-examination from Bishop Malone’s counsel, Simon Harben SC, about the alleged meeting with Bishop Malone, Mr Callinan said: “He [Bishop Malone] never actually had a conversation with me or sought advice whether it was OK for Fletcher to stay in the parish.”
He said he worked closely with James Fletcher and agreed he had been initially sceptical about the charges against him.
Former director of the Catholic Schools Office of the Maitland-Newcastle, Michael Bowman, who was also named in Bishop Malone’s pastoral message, told the inquiry he had no recollection “whatsoever” of the meeting the bishop referred to.