Church's failure 'serious'

The Roman Catholic Church's handling of a paedophile priest from Dunedin amounts to ''negligence'', and a Royal Commission could reveal a cover-up, the head of the University of Otago's theology and public issues centre says.

And an international expert on clerical sex abuse now believes Fr Magnus Murray may have been offending for 50 years, and ''almost certainly has dozens of victims''.

The comments came after ODT Insight yesterday revealed how Fr Murray was allowed to continue as a priest after his offending in Dunedin was revealed to Bishop John Kavanagh in 1972.

Fr Magnus Murray
Fr Magnus Murray

Fr Murray - who was convicted in 2003 of offences against four Dunedin boys between 1958 and 1972 - was sent to Sydney for counselling when two Dunedin parents complained in 1972.

However, he quickly returned to public ministry while there, and was then welcomed back into the fold as a parish priest in North Island centres from 1977 until retiring in 1990.

And, as details of more offending emerged, Prof Tombs, the head of the University of Otago's theology centre, said the latest revelations showed ''deeply discouraging'' failures by the church.

The Dunedin diocese has argued Bishop Kavanagh acted as soon as he learned of the offending, and his response was consistent with the processes and understanding of the day.

Prof Tombs agreed the response could, with good faith, be seen as understandable at the time.

''But that doesn't change the fact it was inadequate and inappropriate,'' he said.

Dunedin Bishop John Kavanagh sent Fr Magnus Murray to Sydney for counselling, but later endorsed...
Dunedin Bishop John Kavanagh sent Fr Magnus Murray to Sydney for counselling, but later endorsed his return to public ministry, after complaints about the priest’s behaviour emerged. Photo: supplied
The ''particularly culpable element'' was the lack of oversight once Fr Murray was moved to Sydney, and later returned to New Zealand, Prof Tombs said.

''It failed in a very serious way to follow up on what should have happened in terms of subsequent oversight,'' Prof Tombs said.

He was said to have remained the responsibility of the Dunedin diocese while in Sydney, but it claimed to have no knowledge of him acting as a priest there.

However, it was ''those sorts of questions where the church is very bad at coming clean'', Prof Tombs said.

''It may well be that the church in Dunedin is aware of that, but it's not acknowledging that.''

It also underscored the value of including churches in the pending Royal Commission into historic abuse, set to get under way in New Zealand soon, he said.

The inquiry could show whether earlier complaints to Bishop Kavanagh or the Dunedin diocese were covered up, he said.

''Part of the problem is the reluctance of the church to tell the full story, up front.

''To me, it shows just how many aspects need to be brought out ... it's not just the abuse. It's also the cover-up and it's the negligence. It's all of that.''

Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin, who is considering recommendations on the scope of the Royal Commission, would not comment yesterday.

Her spokesman would only say an announcement was expected in the ''next few weeks''.

Meanwhile, an international expert on clerical sexual abuse, Emeritus Prof Desmond Cahill, of RMIT University in Melbourne, said the story of Fr Murray was ''a classic case'' of a serial paedophile priest being moved from parish to parish.

''He clearly has offended in every decade in the last half of the 20th century . . . he should have been removed from the priesthood at least by the early 1960s,'' he said.

The church's response showed the ''total neglect'' of abused children, and underscored the need for a wider Royal Commission, he said.

''The serial paedophile almost certainly has dozens of victims,'' he said.

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