OPINION: Risky business for all  

OPINION: Risky business for all  

THERE is much that is intriguing about the case of the Dungog-Gresford Catholic parish priest stood down this month because someone learnt of old allegations of child sex abuse against him.
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One intriguing aspect concerns the fate of a friend of mine who was barred four years ago from visiting schools in the course of his business because three decades ago he was charged with rape. He was acquitted, and the alleged victim was a woman, not a child, but that didn’t save him under the NSW Government’s Working With Children Check he cannot be a volunteer, a paid employee or a service provider to a school because he is regarded as a risk to children.

He has a problem with that; I don’t, even though I know he is no risk to any child.

Fr Guy Hartcher was stood down from parish duties last week when someone discovered on the internet that he had been charged with indecently assaulting a boy while he was a teacher and a priest in the early 1970s. He was acquitted of those charges in 1997.

The person who stood Fr Hartcher down a week ago, Bishop Michael Malone, knew about these charges when he employed Fr Hartcher in 1999. Bishop Malone knew also that 10 years ago a Catholic order paid $40,000 as a settlement without admissions to another former student who alleged he’d been sexually abused by Fr Hartcher in the 1970s.

As you may have read in this paper’s news report a week ago, Bishop Malone said he employed Fr Hartcher with knowledge of the allegations because he believed he was “a fit man for the ministry”.

Ministers of religion are required to undergo a Working With Children Check, as are people like my friend who seek to provide a service to schools. That’s been the case since the legislation came into effect in 2000, and it relates to people applying for work and people already employed.

So how is it that my friend, who would have had minor contact with children, is barred because he was charged and acquitted of the rape of a woman, and Fr Hartcher, whose role as a parish priest involves power and trust, is acceptable despite the fact that he was charged and acquitted of sexually abusing a child?

(This assumes that the Maitland-Newcastle diocese did, as required by law, carry out a Working With Children Check of Fr Hartcher. As of late yesterday afternoon Bishop Malone had not responded to my question seeking to confirm that.)

The explanation is in the two processes that make up the Working With Children Check, which must be performed by one of eight approved screening agencies.

The first process checks national criminal records for convictions involving sex or children, and anyone so convicted is barred by law from working with children. There is no room in this for discretion.

The second process is a background check that takes into account a person’s full criminal record, including charges laid even though the person may have been acquitted, any AVOs awarded on a police application, and any employment proceedings. The screening agency gives a risk assessment that ranges over six steps from “no greater than average” to high.

Now, here’s the salient bit. Which risk is acceptable is entirely a matter for the employer, which does seem unfair given that the risk is to children. The employer is free to employ, for example, anyone deemed to be the highest risk to children.

My friend’s risk assessment was medium; Bishop Malone had not responded late yesterday to my request for Fr Hartcher’s risk assessment.

So while we know that the Department of Education will not accept anyone deemed to be a medium risk to children, we can only guess the level of risk to children acceptable to Bishop Malone.

As reported in this paper Bishop Malone has suspended Fr Hartcher while “these matters are independently investigated”, by whom I can’t tell you, “to determine his suitability for ministry with children”.

So what’s changed between 1999 when Bishop Malone employed Fr Hartcher and 2004 when he suspended him?

Nothing, except that someone discovered what Bishop Malone already knew.

Father Guy Hartcher, right, conducting a service at his Gresford Church.