Royal commission into sex abuse: 20 years to fire Wollongong priest

A Wollongong priest wasn’t fired until 20 years after complaints about him molesting young boys became known, and the Pope was the only one with the power to dismiss him from the priesthood, an inquiry has been told.

At a hearing in Sydney the royal commission into child sexual abuse is looking at how the Catholic Church under its own law - canon law - deals with priests and others against whom allegations have been made but no convictions obtained.

In particular, it is looking at the case of John Gerard Nestor, 50, who was a priest in the Wollongong diocese when he was charged in 1997 with the indecent assault of a teenage altar boy.

The priest admitted in his 1997 court case that he had slept on mattresses on a floor with the boy and his younger brother in July 1991, but he denied assaulting the boy.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, then a federal parliamentary secretary to the employment minister, told the court at the time ‘‘he (Nestor) was ... a beacon of humanity at the seminary’’.

Nestor was convicted of aggravated indecent assault but was acquitted on appeal in 1997.

In his opening statement on Tuesday, Angus Stewart, counsel assisting the commission, said that after the court cases the diocese became aware of other complaints against Nestor, who ran summer camps for altar boys.

The complaints included that he had boys swim naked and engaged in competitions with them during which they would compare physical attributes.

The then bishop of Wollongong, Philip Wilson, reported Nestor to the church’s professional standards office.

Mr Stewart said that Bishop Wilson formally decreed ‘‘that Nestor cease functioning publicly as a priest’’.

Over the next 11 years, the question of whether Nestor should be allowed to function publicly as a priest and whether he should be dismissed involved the Australian church and various entities of Vatican bureaucracies in a number of investigations and hearings, Mr Stewart said.

‘‘Ultimately, Pope Benedict XVI dismissed Nestor from the priesthood in October 2008’’, he said.That was after an ombudsman’s investigation in NSW and when Bishop Peter Ingham, who had taken over in Wollongong, received information that serious offences against church law had been committed by Nestor.

He sent documentation to the powerful Vatican body the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

The CDF asked the Pope to dismiss Nestor, who tried to dispute his dismissal.He was told ‘‘there is no possibility of any recourse against the Pope’s decree’’.

‘‘That is where the long saga of John Nestor’s ordination as a priest and incardination in the Diocese of Wollongong ended, nearly 20 years after complaints about his conduct in relation to young boys first emerged,’’ Mr Stewart said.