Protection to rest directly with bishops  

Protection to rest directly with bishops  

THE handling of child sex allegations against a Hunter Valley priest has resulted in an organisation responsible for child protection at Catholic schools being stripped of its power.
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A spokeswoman for NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour confirmed yesterday that individual bishops would become “directly accountable” for child protection.

The Catholic Commission for Employment Relations will lose its authority to ensure compliance with the Child Protection Act at all NSW and Canberra Catholic schools, agencies and organisations by the end of June.

The Ombudsman’s child protection team initially became involved with the commission to help Catholic schools and organisations to meet state child protection legislation obligations.

This led to repeated breaches by the commission, including its failure to properly deal with allegations involving clergy, investigation delays, failure to respond to Ombudsman requests for information, inadequate staff training and not properly reporting allegations, the spokeswoman said.

The Herald understands that the way Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese representatives handled allegations against former Branxton priest Father James Fletcher from June 2002 eventually forced Mr Barbour to strip the commission of its power.

An East Maitland District Court jury convicted Fletcher last month on nine sexual abuse charges.

He has been remanded in custody for sentencing on March 11.

Fletcher pleaded not guilty and said he would appeal against his conviction on eight charges of having homosexual intercourse with a child aged between 10 and 18 and one count of committing an act of indecency with the same boy when he was 13.

The Ombudsman has investigated the church’s involvement in the matter, including reports that confidentiality was breached when Fletcher was told of sex abuse allegations 11 months before police laid charges in May last year. This investigation is the subject of a confidential Ombudsman’s document.

The spokeswoman confirmed yesterday that the Ombudsman’s child protection team had held three investigations and five audits in the year to the end of June last year into “systemic issues” within the commission.

Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle Michael Malone apologised for failing to stand Fletcher down when he was told of the allegations in June 2002 and failing to notify the Ombudsman of the allegations.

Bishop Malone said yesterday a Maitland-Newcastle Diocese child protection unit would be set up to work closely with other organisations, such as the Department of Community Services, to help him ensure child protection.

It would help to deal with allegations, adhere to legislative requirements, see that natural justice was done, conduct education and address the devastating effect of child abuse in diocesan communities, Bishop Malone said.

Bishop Michael Malone