Bishop defied Rome: inquiry

DEFIED EDICTS: Bishop Michael Malone. Picture: Simone De PeakARCHIVE of Herald reports
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TRANSCRIPTS AND COURT EXHIBITS

BISHOP Michael Malone has opened a window into the secretive world of Catholic canon law, saying he defied edicts from Rome which required clergy to destroy documents associated with priestly paedophilia.

In his third day in the witness box at the Special Commission of Inquiry sitting in Newcastle, the former head of the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese was again taken to task about aspects of his handling of allegations against two of the diocese’s priests – Denis McAlinden and Jim Fletcher.

This section of the inquiry is investigating whether Church officials “hindered or obstructed” police investigations in any way, including by a failure to report alleged criminal offences.

As it had been for the previous two days, Bishop Malone’s recall of specific events of the time was sometimes vague, as he continued to answer numerous questions from counsel assisting, Julia Lonergan, by saying he was unable to recall the detail of what she was asking him about.

Bishop Malone spoke again of a personal journey that began with a desire to protect the Church from attacks, and finished with a stand on Church paedophilia he said had put him at odds with some of his fellow senior clergy.

Asked by Ms Lonergan, Bishop Malone agreed he complied with canon law requiring bishops to keep “secret archives” about priests.

He agreed these documents were to be “bolted under secrecy” and “most carefully guarded”, but that before 2004 they “were not as secure as they could have been”.

Ms Lonergan said canon law required bishops to annually destroy original documents concerning “criminal cases of moral matters” after 10 years or upon the death of the priest, with only a short summary and “text of the definitive judgment” to be kept.

Bishop Malone said: “I didn’t destroy any documents in my time as bishop; perhaps I should have.”

When Ms Lonergan described the latter part of his answer as “jocular”, Bishop Malone said: “Only as far as we might not be in this room now had I destroyed them.”

Bishop Malone said that, early on, he was conscious of his obligation to defend the Church against scandal.

Aware that cases such as those of McAlinden and Fletcher were “impinging on the stability of the Church”, Bishop Malone said he tried to avoid damage by “trying to play it down, perhaps, a little”.

Bishop Malone denied these concerns influenced his attitudes towards helping the police with inquiries, saying he had an “open house” practice with police, who wouldn’t have needed “a warrant to look at files once we got into the swing of handling things better”.

“I would never have wanted to thwart a police investigation,” Bishop Malone said.

Agreeing there was a difference between “thwarting and assisting”, Bishop Malone said “it wasn’t easy” helping police in the early years, but it was part of his “growing awareness” of the problem. Turning to a full-page apology “to the people of the community” published in his name in the Newcastle Herald on May 8, 2010, Bishop Malone said he had taken that “unprecedented” step to “counter a certain amount of negative publicity” about the Church in the Herald.

He said “we had been trying to do good things through Zimmerman House” – a reference to the diocese’s child protection unit – which was not getting through to the community.

Bishop Malone told the commission he had apologised earlier than 2010 through the pulpit.

Herald articles show the diocese apologised to McAlinden’s victims in October 2007.

In July 2008, Bishop Malone told reporter Joanne McCarthy he had “stuffed up” the Fletcher case and admitted personal responsibility for a “cold and calculating” response to the victims of serial paedophile Vince Ryan.

Seven years earlier, however, in May 2001, Bishop Malone described Herald journalist Jeff Corbett’s reporting of the Ryan case as “an attack” on the Church.

“For Mr Corbett to accuse Church authorities of covering up this case is both incorrect and a slur on the integrity of those authorities,” Bishop Malone wrote in an article published on May 9, 2001.

The hearings resume on Monday.