Wollongong bishop threatened to take Nestor case to Pope: commission

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A former Wollongong bishop felt so strongly that a priest accused of child molestation should not be allowed to practise he was willing to "take the matter all the way to the Pope" and resign if necessary, the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard on Wednesday.

Philip Wilson, now the Archbishop of Adelaide, also criticised the Congregation for the Clergy (CFC) - one of the Vatican's most powerful bodies - for always taking the side of priests accused of abuse.

Archbishop Wilson was being questioned about events in 1997 on day two of the hearing into the Wollongong Catholic Diocese's response to child sexual abuse complaints against then Father John Nestor.

At that time, Mr Nestor had successfully appealed a conviction of aggravated indecent assault against a 15-year-old altar boy.

However, due to other complaints - including that Mr Nestor had watched boys showering, made boys bathe naked, conducted bodily "soap inspections" and touched a boy "on the penis and the bum" - Archbishop Wilson was seeking to bar him from working in the ministry until further assessments had been done.

After an investigation through the church's Towards Healing scheme, Archbishop Wilson issued a decree that Mr Nestor should not be able to practise until he submitted to an assessment from the church's counselling clinic Encompass Australasia.

However, the accused priest appealed to the CFC, which upheld his appeal in 2000.

The archbishop told the commission the CFC "always came down on the side of the priests" accused of sexual abuse.

"The instructions they gave to the bishops were: what [the priests] had done had to be put aside and the priest allowed back into ministry," he said.

Archbishop Wilson said he decided to appeal to the church's highest judicial authority, the Apostolic Signatura.

If this appeal failed, he said, he would then take the matter higher.

"I felt that since I was bound in conscience in this case, I would take the matter all the way to the Pope, if necessary," he wrote in a letter before the commission.

"… I felt so strongly about these matters that in the unlikely event that he compelled me to restore Father Nestor to ministry, I knew that I would be unable to do so and I would, in conscience, have no option but to resign."

Mr Nestor was eventually defrocked in 2008 by order of Pope Benedict XVI.

Archbishop Wilson also told the commission of his efforts to clarify aspects of the Catholic Church's law - canon law - which appeared to be uncertain in regards to dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse.

He said he felt he needed to deal with the issue carefully due to public scrutiny and strong support for Mr Nestor within his congregation.

"Because there was so much opposition in the community to the stand I had taken against Father Nestor, I realised that if I didn't follow the rules very carefully and have proper procedures in place, everything I did would be attacked and everything that I tried to achieve would be pushed aside," he said.

The hearing continues.

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