Fractured parish critical of church process: Archbishop here for meeting to discuss Father Brian Hassett
About 100 members of the Tumut community attended a public meeting with the Archbishop of the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese, Christopher Prowse, and Archdiocesan Professional Standards Officer Matt Casey, on Sunday at St Mary’s Hall.
The main topic under discussion was former Tumut parish priest Father Brian Hassett, who was moved to Canberra in 2014 after an internal investigation by Mr Casey into allegations of inappropriate behaviour involving children.
The community was given the opportunity to speak, and to ask questions of the Archbishop and Mr Casey about how the whole affair had been handled.
Those who attended spoke primarily in support of Father Brian, with many sharing personal experiences of his “compassion and love,” and also communicating their feelings of hurt and betrayal – not only that he was moved away from Tumut, but also that the local community had been kept in the dark.
As one speaker said, there are many unknowns, and those who spoke let the Archbishop and Mr Casey know the effect the confusion and lack of transparency surrounding Father Brian’s removal had had both on individuals, and the parish.
One woman spoke in support of the victims, putting forward that one of the main issues surrounding what is being investigated by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is that “children aren’t believed.”
She said, “I’d like to ask each and every one of you, if your son or daughter came to you and said, my space is being invaded, I feel uncomfortable, what would you do? If these girls aren’t believed then will the next children come forward? Will the next?”
However, by far the most common line of communication related to how the Tumut community and Father Brian have been treated by the Archdiocese.
Trina Thomson expressed the opinion of many when she said that there had been a “kangaroo court,” as did Dr Greg Knoblanche when he said “the parish needs explanations.”
The meeting went for over two hours, but the most frequent questions and comments raised were:
• Why was Father Brian moved from Tumut to Canberra when he is not on the sex offender register?
• Why has the Archbishop never apologised to the people of Tumut, when he has apologised to the people of Canberra for placing Father Brian next to a primary school?
• How can the community have confidence in the process with which Father Brian was found guilty?
• Can the independent review which is planned for the decision to place Father Brian next to a primary school when he was moved also review the decision to remove him in the first place?
• Can Father Brian be returned to Tumut, even as a layperson?
• What has the effect been on moving Father Brian again, as a former cancer sufferer in his eighties, on his ill health?
• Could Father Brian be present at a public meeting such as the one that was held on Sunday?
• Has the Archdiocese attempted to correct the descriptions of Father Brian as a “paedophile” and an “ex-priest” that are being used by the media, considering they themselves agree these labels don’t apply?
• One woman said she had asked the Archdiocese for Father Brian’s contact details so that she could ask him to pray for her critically ill brother, and was denied.
Not everyone was there to speak in support.
Several spoke about Father Brian’s habit of criticising the magisterium (the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Pope) and of criticising the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese. Meetings have been held in the past about Father Brian’s practice of marrying divorced people, performing burial rites for those who weren’t Catholic, and other controversial practices for traditional Catholics, and it seems those criticisms still hold weight for some who spoke on Sunday.
“Whilst there was a lot of public support for Brian, not everyone supported the way he behaved and the way he was acting,” said Patricia Mangelsdorf.
“I never once heard the magisterium or the Archdiocese commended for the good work that they were doing [by Father Brian]. In fact, many times I heard them run down.”
“I think he was here too long,” said Howard Young.
“It’s fair to say our parish has not always been as one. We have always been divided, and part of the reason for that is that Father Brian ran his own race. He had no time for Canberra, and I think the church has mixed up a lot of these other issues with these allegations.”
Members of the community also praised current parish priest, Father Sijo Jose, for his work in a difficult time.
Church officer defends investigation
Archdiocesan Professional Standards Officer Matt Casey revealed several new details about the 2014 investigation into Father Brian Hassett at Sunday’s public meeting.
Mr Casey said that during his investigation he uncovered evidence that Father Brian had engaged in “boundary violations” similar to the ones he has been accused of in Tumut in a former parish.
Boundary violations include behaviour such as hugging children, kissing them on the head, and inviting them into his private residence.
Mr Casey said that Father Brian is not a paedophile, and Archbishop Christopher Prowse also clarified that Father Brian is not an “ex-priest” despite what has been written in the media.
“If we look at the evidence before the Royal Commission, very little of that is about paedophilia,” Mr Casey said.
“Of all the priests that have been investigated in our dioceses, there are two that I would classify as paedophilia.”
They said that they had contacted media outlets about their use of terms in their reporting of the matter, but that they only had so much power to control what was being written.
Mr Casey also responded to criticism that the investigation was conducted without transparency, and to comments from members of the Tumut community that spoke at the meeting that his work seemed to lack “rigour” – that it was a “dog’s breakfast,” as one parishioner put it.
The Archdiocese have not made publicly available details of what the specific allegations against Father Brian were, beyond that they involved “boundary violations” and “inappropriate touching.”
Mr Casey added on Sunday that one of the allegations was of an “overtly sexual” nature, presumably referring to the second allegation, which involved Father Brian hugging a 10 year old girl from behind and nibbling or sucking on her ear, when they were alone, on more than one occasion.
That information has not been released by the Archdiocese, but was made available to the Tumut and Adelong Times from another source.
They have also not released information about the process of the investigation or the evidence used in it, but Mr Casey did speak about the process on Sunday.
“One of the allegations was referred to police, and after careful consideration they decided not to pursue that and to let it proceed in an internal investigation,” he said.
“The police were consulted and the victim was given time to consider, and she decided she didn’t want to go forward.”
He said since the case didn’t go forward, there was no mention of it in the NSW Police records.
Mr Casey said the investigation was undertaken through the proper channels.
“[The allegations] were all investigated under Part 3a of the NSW Ombudsman Act,” he said.
“Organisations have a responsibility to investigate complaints. When it’s not a matter that’s going to be investigated by the police, it is investigated under…the NSW Ombudsman Act.
“It’s an oversight body for schools, churches, and so on, and it’s there so that you can’t say ‘you’re covering up.’ The other reason for it is to protect the person being accused. It’s protection for the church, the Archbishop, and for each and every one of us, because it protects false or malicious allegations from going through.”
Mr Casey explained that the investigation into Father Brian was initiated by him, after he was asked as part of his role as Archdiocesan Professional Standards Officer to review the church’s old files and look for discrepancies.
He uncovered an old complaint regarding Father Brian, and decided to reopen the investigation after consulting with the Ombudsman’s Office.
Archbishop Christopher Prowse was present at the meeting, and said that he was “here to listen.”
He also spoke at the end of the discussion, starting by answering questions about Father Brian’s health.
“Father Brian’s health is fragile and we are monitoring his health and assessing his health to see what is the best care that we can give him,” Archbishop Prowse said.
“His health is up and down, but he’s clear as a bell intellectually – mentally – and he thanks you for the greetings that some of you have sent.”
The Archdiocese has planned a review of the decision to place Father Brian in home for retired priests, Lanigan House, next to a primary school.
One request from the meeting was for the review to also include a review of the original investigation that led to him being placed there.
Archbishop Prowse said he would have to receive advice before making a decision, but that he would take the concerns of the Tumut community “on board.”
He also discussed the decision to tell the Tumut parish that Father Brian was sick when he was originally moved to Canberra, when the real reason was the investigation into inappropriate behaviour involving children.
This fiction was maintained for a little over a year, when Mr Casey and the Canberra-Goulburn Vicar-General held a meeting with certain members of the Tumut parish.
Archbishop Prowse said he was giving Father Brian time to prepare his defence, which took two or three months.
“I do apologise, very sincerely, that I moved Father Brian to Canberra to prepare his defence,” he said.
“I wasn’t in a position to brief [the community]. I do apologise, you might say ‘Canberra just moved him and didn’t tell us anything’ but I was not in a position to do so at that time.”
The Archbishop opened and closed the meeting with a prayer, and spoke about the Royal Commission in general.
“As your Archbishop I think what disturbs me the most is that this can have a tsunami effect on faith,” he said.
“People say, ‘can we trust you?’”
“I have heard the victims stories, and they are horrendous. I look forward to the recommendations of the Royal Commission…I think they will be a mirror that we can all hold up, not just for the church, but for all of us.”