The Church response

Monsignor John Harrison. Photo: Christine O'Connor
Monsignor John Harrison. Photo: Christine O'Connor
The Church cannot "hide'' from the story of Fr Magnus Murray, one of Dunedin's top Catholics says.

But nor can all Catholics be tarnished by the actions of one man, Monsignor John Harrison, of the Catholic Diocese of Dunedin, says.

"It actually reflects on the rest of us and everyone gets tarred, and yet there are so many good people [in the Church].''

Fr Harrison told ODT Insight the complaints against Fr Murray were handled according to the processes and understanding of paedophilia of the day.

He was not aware of the offending before complaints began to emerge, and nor were, to the best of his knowledge, others within the Church - although he still wondered about that.

"I always wondered myself how somebody else didn't stumble across it.''

Bishop John Kavanagh had also been "ahead of his time'' when he responded to complaints levelled against Fr Murray by sending him to Sydney for counselling, Fr Harrison said.

It was hoped treatment could cure him of his affliction, after which he could be returned to public ministry, he said.

There was no intention to allow him to resume public ministry in Sydney, as he remained the Dunedin diocese's responsibility while there, Fr Harrison said.

The fact that he had resumed his duties as a priest while there was "not knowledge we're aware of''.

"If the Archbishop over there allowed that to happen, well, that wasn't Bishop Kavanagh's doing.

"He went there to get treatment.''

Bishop John Kavanagh. Photo: ODT files
Bishop John Kavanagh. Photo: ODT files
The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has not responded to repeated requests for comment from ODT Insight on Fr Murray's time in Sydney.

Fr Harrison also defended Bishop Kavanagh's decision to excardinate - or transfer - Fr Murray to the Auckland diocese, allowing him to resume public ministry in New Zealand, beginning in 1976.

He denied Bishop Kavanagh had concealed Fr Murray's crimes, saying it had been disclosed to the Sydney Archdiocese and to Bishop Mackay before Fr Murray was transferred to Auckland.

Bishop Kavanagh had also met at least one parent to discuss Fr Murray's offending face-to-face, prior to him being sent to Australia, and that parent "had every right to go to police''.

"The Church wouldn't have said 'don't'.

"I think the sad thing is, I'm aware one of the very early victims did actually say something to the parents [and was not listened to].

"When I received that information, I just about wept. 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.''

Asked if less people might have been placed in harm's way if Bishop Kavanagh had gone to police, or defrocked Fr Murray immediately, Fr Harrison said there would have been "perhaps a lesser likelihood'' of harm.

"But I don't think you could say that you would have prevented it.''

Asked if people would judge Bishop Kavanagh negatively today for allowing him to resume his ministry after committing such crimes, Fr Harrison said: "Yes, today, but you can't transfer 1972 to 2018.

"He was taking the lead from the professional, who was working with the understanding of those conditions of the time.

"Whereas I think if you spoke to a psychiatrist or psychologist today, they would say people into paedophilia . . . they are worse than an alcoholic.

"Recovery is far more tricky, or impossible.''

He also defended the decision not to defrock Fr Murray, stripping him of his title as priest, after complaints emerged, or even after he was convicted.

Fr Murray, now aged 91, remains a priest in retirement in an Auckland rest home, but Fr Harrison said defrocking him might only have made things worse.

"You might actually laicize the guy, and then he's actually free to roam. He's no longer under the control of the Church.''

The fallout from the scandal had been tough on all Catholics when details of his offending became public, beginning in 2002, he said.

"For a while, I didn't want to pick up the telephone, because you didn't know what was coming.''

He retained an open mind about the possibility more victims were out there, unwilling to come forward, in Dunedin and further afield.

"If there's one or two, there must be a trail there somewhere.''

The Church's protocols and processes for handling allegations of child abuse by clergy had since changed, as had the professional understanding of paedophilia.

That included the creation of new sexual abuse protocol committees as a point of contact within each diocese, which referred allegations to the National Office for Professional Standards.

"Today, when a person comes along and lays a complaint or allegation, our process is to say 'look, we'll take it to the police'.

"The response would be very different [now].''

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