Apology from church for abuse case comments

The Catholic Church in New Zealand has been forced to apologise for comments implying parents bore some responsibility for stopping clerical sexual abuse.

The statements by Monsignor the Rt Rev John Harrison, of the Catholic Diocese of Dunedin, and Auckland Bishop the Most Rev Patrick Dunn appeared in the ODT Insight article, Sins of a Father, published last week.

The article, detailing the abuses of former Dunedin priest Fr Magnus Murray and the handling of his behaviour by the church, quoted Msgr Harrison describing how one Dunedin victim's complaints to his parents had been ignored.

''If that had been picked up - and I'm not casting any aspersions on the parents at all - that would have perhaps prevented a whole lot more,'' he said.

The sentiment was echoed by Bishop Dunn, of Auckland, who said he found it ''extraordinary that parents didn't go straight to the police in the 1970s and '80s''.

The comments prompted a complaint from one survivor, who wrote to both men threatening further action if they did not apologise.

Murray Heasley, a member of a support network for survivors of faith-based abuse, also objected, saying the comments had caused ''shock, astonishment and deep dismay''.

Yesterday, Hamilton Bishop the Most Rev Steve Lowe, in an email on behalf of the New Zealand Bishops, apologised ''unreservedly'' for the comments.

''We sincerely regret the hurt these comments have caused to victims, survivors and their families.''

Bishop Lowe did not elaborate, and nor did he, Bishop Dunn or Msgr Harrison respond to requests for comment yesterday.

Instead, in the email, Bishop Lowe offered to meet Dr Heasley ''to hear anything you wish to say to me about the matters raised in the ODT, and also to share with you my response and course of action''.

Dr Heasley said the comments had prompted ''understandable outrage and disbelief'', offending victims, survivors and their families across the nation, as both Msgr Harrison and Bishop Dunn carried ''considerable clout''.

He was pleased the rest of New Zealand's bishops appeared ''equally uncomfortable'' with the pair's comments, and he would accept Bishop Lowe's offer to meet and discuss his group's concerns.

University of Otago theology and public issues centre head David Tombs said yesterday the church's earlier comments about parents appeared to ''directly or at least implicitly seek to transfer the blame to parents''.

The same approach had been tried overseas, only to be discredited by subsequent revelations, so it was ''surprising'' to see it being used in New Zealand, he said.

Experience elsewhere showed families were asked, or even
pressured, to keep silent and trust church processes, Prof Tombs
said.

''In the absence of evidence one way or the other, I would presume that the church acted in the same way in Dunedin as they did in so many other places and used its influence over parents.

''If so, the suggestion that the parents could have reported the abuse to police is true but it is highly disingenuous to be arguing this.''

chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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