MAITLAND-Newcastle Catholic Bishop Michael Malone admitted last night he could have handled the Father James Fletcher controversy better, and publicly apologised for failing to stand down the convicted pedophile immediately after being told of the child sex allegations.
Bishop Malone allowed Fletcher, who was convicted on Monday of nine child sex charges dating back 15 years, to continue running his Hunter Valley parish for nine months despite being aware of police investigations into the allegations.
Fletcher is set to appeal against the conviction.
Yesterday, Bishop Malone apologised to members of Fletcher’s Branxton-Greta-Lochinvar parish “for not standing down Father Fletcher immediately”.
“It is easy to have 20-20 vision after the event,” he said.
“In retrospect, the matter could have been handled better and we have learned that we have to respond more appropriately to these issues.
“To this end we are establishing a diocesan child protection unit to respond more professionally in future.”
Bishop Malone also admitted he was aware of “one priest from one parish” donating part of the parish’s Christmas collection to help fund Fletcher’s defence.
“This is certainly not normal practice,” he said.
And in apologising to the Branxton parishioners, Bishop Malone said he was “very conscious of the pain that they will be experiencing”.
“I am also very conscious that many of them thought that Father Fletcher was innocent and they held out every hope that he would return to the parish,” he said.
Bishop Malone said Fletcher “availed” himself of an “offered loan facility” to help fund his defence, which The Herald understands exceeded $200,000 for the 11-day District Court trial.
Fletcher’s legal team included well-respected Queen’s Counsel Ian Barker who has represented Lindy Chamberlain and, more recently, Supreme Court judge Jeff Shaw and was joined by barrister Stewart Austin and solicitor Greg Murray.
Mr Murray said yesterday that an appeal against Monday’s conviction would be lodged in the Court of Criminal Appeal as soon as possible.
Mr Murray declined to comment on the possibility of a bail application.
Fletcher is due to be sentenced by Judge Graham Armitage on March 11 next year.
Bishop Malone said Father James Saunders, Vicar-General and former Branxton parish priest, would preside at Masses this weekend.
A meeting had also been organised for next Tuesday at Centacare Newcastle to give “an opportunity for people to speak about their response to this difficult situation”.
Bishop Malone said he wanted to appoint a new parish priest as soon as possible.
FATHER JAMES FLETCHER