Alexandra’s priest speaks out

Alexandra parish priest Fr Vaughan Leslie says ‘‘misguided’’ actions by the Catholic Church...
Alexandra parish priest Fr Vaughan Leslie says ‘‘misguided’’ actions by the Catholic Church hierarchy have helped fuel a sexual abuse crisis engulfing the church. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
A Central Otago priest has broken his silence by criticising the Catholic Church’s handling of historic sexual abuse allegations.

Alexandra parish priest Fr Vaughan Leslie said the church’s response, within New Zealand and overseas, had helped fuel the "abuse crisis" now engulfing the church.

It had failed to remove men from ministry when credible complaints were received, and "misguided protectionism" had occurred "at the expense of truth and justice", he said.

The response also highlighted the need for culture change within the church hierarchy, here and overseas, to put an end to a situation in which "in-groups of clergy hold all the reins of power".

"I speak out because I love the Catholic Church, but not always the way she is run.

"Saying this as a priest could well challenge some members of the Catholic hierarchy, but not doing so makes me guilty of saying the status quo is OK - which I do not believe [will do] if we are to regain our credibility, particularly in the moral area.

"Only when this occurs will victims of all forms of church-based abuse be able to trust the church again and have confidence that her processes will effectively protect the vulnerable, now and in the future."

Fr Leslie, a priest for 18 years in Otago, Southland and the North Island, also had a masters degree in psychology from the United States-based Divine Mercy University, and was a member of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association.

He told ODT Insight the sexual abuse crisis was "a very trying time" for the Catholic Church, and "isn’t just going to go away quickly".

Sexual offending by some priests had created suspicion of others - himself included - within the community, prompting Fr Leslie to proactively reassure friends he was not an offender.

That was "an awful thing", he said.

"That’s where those priests who have committed these offences haven’t just offended against victims.

"They’ve offended against their own families, against parishes, against the general population and against clergy who are largely doing their best.

"It’s a really significant betrayal of trust on many levels."

But, despite the impact, it was important the revelations continued to shock, "because it is always shocking".

"This abuse isn’t going to go away. As long as there are victims alive, there are going to be people hurting, and their hurt doesn’t end.

"It’s not just as simple as drawing a line under it. It goes on, and for some people they’ve only just been able to face what occurred to them and understand how wrong it was," he said.

He had been compelled to speak out once before, in 2003, when he wrote to Dunedin paedophile priest Fr Magnus Murray in prison, urging him to seek forgiveness for his "truly evil" crimes.

Fr Murray had responded by complaining to the church hierarchy from his prison cell, and Fr Leslie was reprimanded for his actions.

He would not name the church official who reprimanded him, but said it was now clear clergy needed to hold other clergy and the church leadership - himself included - to account.

That should include making public the names of known offenders, where credible evidence of their crimes existed, because they were "public figures", he said.

"We all have to make an effort to prevent this, to make sure it doesn’t happen again or continue.

"I believe that’s largely through being as open as we can about what has happened in the past.

"It’s not just in this diocese. It’s about the church, full stop. This is an opportunity for all of us to up our game ... bringing things out into the light and not covering things up."

The comments by Fr Leslie came after months of revelations by ODT Insight, which has highlighted the church’s handling of Fr Murray and identified other offenders - including priests, Christian Brothers and Catholic teachers — who targeted children over decades.

Dunedin Bishop Michael Dooley - who publicly apologised to the city in August - has repeatedly refused to say how many historic offenders, victims or payouts the church is aware of within the Dunedin diocese.

His silence was blasted by Prof David Tombs — the head of the University of Otago’s theological and public issues centre — who called it "a failure of the church’s moral leadership".

Fr Leslie said bishops were being held to account like never before, but Bishop Dooley appeared to be "doing as best as he can".

"It’s a very difficult time for anyone to be a bishop ... but our new bishop has an opportunity to do things well, and openly, and justly.

"That would be my hope."

He also hoped to see the church included in an expanded Royal Commission when the terms of reference were eventually confirmed by the Government.

And, in the meantime, there was an opportunity to help victims - and the church - to heal.

"I personally believe this is a wonderful time to help purify the church, and particularly to get some healing for those who have suffered horrendously at the hands of those who should be supporting and loving, rather than abusing."

Need help?

Contact Tone Miller, Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Dunedin/Invercargill, on 021 198-7878.

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