CALLS have been made for the sacking of the Catholic Bishop of Newcastle/Maitland Michael Malone for failing to stand down a priest accused of child sexual assault.
Bishop Malone acknowledged allowing Father James Fletcher to continue ministering for nine months after the allegation was first levelled against him and a police investigation was in progress.
He said a stroke four years ago and declining health meant Father Fletcher was not considered a risk.
Father Fletcher has now been stood aside after being charged by police, but the church’s failure to act for nine months has caused controversy.
Bishop Malone also acknowledged he failed to comply with an Ombudsman’s Act requirement to report allegations of sexual abuse within a 30-day period.
The case has angered the Melbourne-based Broken Rights group, which represents the
victims of church sex abuse, and has prompted calls for Bishop Malone’s removal.
“If it was good enough for the Archbishop of Sydney George Pell and the Governor-General to stand aside while these sort of allegations are investigated why didn’t Father Fletcher?” Broken Rights spokesman Michael Cosgrove said.
“Bishops don’t take responsibility when it doesn’t suit them and this is just another case of them avoiding their responsibility to their people.
“I think a bishop’s primary responsibility is to children in their care.”
But Bishop Malone said Father Fletcher’s stroke and his age (61) rendered him not a risk.
Bishop Malone said he made his decision in consultation with his Council of Priests, the vicar general of the diocese Father Jim Saunders,and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s NSW Professional Standards Group.
He also consulted the director of Catholic schools.
“Should he stay or go, that was part of the conversation but not the entire conversation,” Bishop Malone said.
“Based on the advice I received and an assessment of the potential risk as per NSW child protection legislation, I decided to leave Father Fletcher in place, aware also of his poor health and near fatal stroke a few years ago.”
On the requirement to report to the Ombudsman within 30 days, Bishop Malone said he was not aware of the need and neither were other bishops he consulted.
“In fact, when I mentioned it to the bishops as I did in conference (Australian Catholic Bishops Conference) yesterday they were all surprised to learn it,” he said.
Bishop Malone said he had complied with the Catholic Church’s “Toward Healing” guidelines, which sets out how church authorities should deal with allegations of sexual abuse.
The executive officer of the church’s National Professional Standards Group, Sister Angela Ryan, said a priest accused of sexual assault would be removed from carrying out duties only if they were deemed to pose an “unacceptable risk” to the public.
Father Fletcher has been charged with eight offences relating to child sexual assault and will answer the charges in court.
He has not been required to enter a formal plea, but has denied the allegations.
BISHOP MICHAEL MALONE