20 years to fire a priest: abuse claims went to the Vatican

John Nestor
John Nestor

The Wollongong Catholic Diocese's push to have former priest John Gerard Nestor defrocked following allegations of child sexual abuse went all the way to the Vatican and took more than 20 years, the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard on Tuesday.

In the opening submissions of a public hearing into the Church's response to Mr Nestor's alleged conduct towards young boys in the early 1990s, counsel assisting the royal commission Angus Stewart said the investigation was expected to reveal "confusion" about how various processes within the wider Catholic Church should deal with reports of child sexual abuse.

"This case study will illustrate significant changes in the Holy See's response to child sexual abuse claims," Mr Stewart told the commission.

Many senior Church figures - including Wollongong Bishop Peter Ingham, Adelaide Archbishop Phillip Wilson and general secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference Father Brian Lucas - watched the statements from the public gallery.

Setting out the scope of the hearing, Mr Stewart detailed how the Church acted under its own law - canon law - between the early 1990s and 2008, when Mr Nestor was finally stood down by order of the Vatican.

Mr Stewart started by detailing the "early concerns" about Mr Nestor and how clergy responded to worries about his annual school holiday "Summer Safaris" or "Altar service camps".

The commission heard a school principal, Catholic Education Office staff, camp workers and parents all raised concerns about Mr Nestor's behaviour towards boys at the camps. These were referred to then Bishop William Murray and the Church's "special issues committee", led by Fr Lucas, but Mr Nestor denied any wrongdoing or inappropriate conduct.

However, when he requested to run the camps again in 1994 Bishop Murray - who is now deceased - refused in light of the "witch-hunting mentality" of the local media, the commission heard.

Mr Stewart also detailed the 1996 court case against Mr Nestor, in which a victim - known as ABA - complained to then Wollongong Chancellor Father Graham Schmitzer that he had been sexually abused by Mr Nestor when he was 15 years old.

A Wollongong magistrate found Mr Nestor guilty, however, he successfully appealed seven months later and served no time behind bars.

Following four more complaints against Mr Nestor in 1997 and for the next 11 years, the Wollongong Church fought to keep him from being active in public ministry.

The complaints included allegations from a mother in September 1997 who said Mr Nestor had "watched boys showering, showered in front of boys, made boys bathe naked, conducted bodily 'soap inspections' and made inappropriate comments", Mr Stewart told the commission.

"Also in September 1997, [a male victim known as] ABN complained that he had seen Nestor touch his brother [known as] ABO 'on the penis and the bum' during one of the camps," Mr Stewart said.

Another mother complained Mr Nestor had swum naked with boys on one of the camps and engaged in a competition with the boys to compare private parts.

During this investigation, the commission heard at least two priests ignored then Bishop Patrick Wilson's requests for Mr Nestor to stand aside from public ministry.

The priests, Father Patrick Vaughan and Father Mark O'Keefe will give evidence about why they disobeyed Bishop Wilson's wishes.

The hearing will also examine how different Church processes, such as Towards Healing, the Congregation of the Clergy and the Church's highest judicial authority the Apostolic Signatura worked to remove Mr Nestor from the ministry until Pope Benedict XVI decreed that he should be "involuntarily laicised" in 2008.

Bishop greeted in new job with Nestor arrest

A FORMER Wollongong bishop has told the royal commission into child sexual abuse how he arrived in the city to confront a community divided by some of the Catholic diocese’s darkest days.

Giving evidence on the first day of a public hearing into the responses of Wollongong Catholic Diocese into allegations of child molestation, the now Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson said he arrived to prepare for ordination in 1996 to see photos of then priest John Nestor being arrested and led away from the presbytery at Fairy Meadow on the front page of the Illawarra Mercury.

“I also knew in the time before my ordination that there had been quite a number of major cases involving different people, including a priest and a religious brother, where there had been accusations, prosecutions and convictions in regard to abuse of young people,” Archbishop Wilson said, referring to the infamous cases of Father Peter L. Comensoli and Brother Michael Evans.

Archbishop Wilson told the commission he was approached by many of Nestor’s supporters and detractors during his first months as bishop.

“[T]here were many people who, over the period of time that I had to engage with the issues concerning Father Nestor, expressed to me their surprise that I just didn’t welcome him with open arms back into the priesthood and the ministry because he was obviously innocent of everything,” he said.

To deal with the division in the church and community, Archbishop Wilson told the commission he set up a group of legal advisers, welfare and youth workers to advise him.

Archbishop Wilson also told the commission he was “particularly worried” about parts of Mr Nestor’s 1996 court case in which he was charged, found guilty, but then acquitted of the indecent assault of a teenager.

Mr Stewart singled out parts of the court judgment’s that referred to boys staying overnight at Mr Nestor’s house and sleeping on mattresses with him, and the archbishop said he thought this behaviour was “imprudent and wrong”.

“It seemed to me the information was enough to raise questions about his suitability for ministry, and it then became a large part of the processes I was involved in trying to deal with these issues,” he said.

Archbishop Wilson said he became aware of other complaints about Mr Nestor, including that he had insisted on communal, naked showering with boys at his summer altar boy camps.

He indicated this was why he continued to push for Mr Nestor’s position in the public ministry to be reviewed by the church’s Towards Healing  scheme.

“I thought that the information that was contained in that judgment was, again, another firm basis on which to take the processes against Father Nestor to a further stage,” he said.