Wollongong bishop Peter Ingham speaks at royal commission on sex abuse

Bishop Peter Ingham at Wollongong's ANZAC day dawn service. Picture: ADAM McLEAN
Bishop Peter Ingham at Wollongong's ANZAC day dawn service. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

Wollongong Bishop Peter Ingham has told a public inquiry of his repeated attempts to stop an accused child molester from working as a priest while the Vatican stalled.

In the witness box at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Bishop Ingham said he was frustrated and disappointed at the length of time it took the church to stand down former priest John Nestor.

Mr Nestor was suspended from the ministry in 1997 after he was convicted, but later acquitted on appeal, over aggravated indecent assault charges of a 15-year-old altar boy.

When more complaints emerged about his behaviour towards boys at summer holiday camps, the diocese continued to pursue his dismissal.

Bishop Ingham began his tenure in Wollongong in 2001, amid an appeal to the church’s highest judicial authority, the Apostolic Signatura. This was launched by the Wollongong diocese after another church body – the powerful Congregation for the Clergy – had ruled Mr Nestor should be allowed to work as a priest despite the child abuse allegations.

Holding the same strong views as his predecessor, now Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson, Bishop Ingham continued to suspend Mr Nestor from practicing while the Vatican deliberated.

However, he said Mr Nestor was very persistent and continued to say mass and celebrate weddings overseas despite a decree that he should not work until he had been assessed by a church clinic.

“Over the time, you know, in the whole process of dealing with John, he objected to just about everything all the way, even when the facts were quite clear,” Bishop Ingham said.

For instance, in 2004, Mr Nestor wrote to Bishop Ingham to tell him he had officiated at marriage ceremonies of university students in the United States.

He also asked permission to work as a priest in Kenya and Sierra Leone, and worked briefly as a priest in a Sydney aged care centre, however Bishop Ingham continued to uphold the ban.

“I was amazed he kept coming back, coming back, coming back, all the time,” Bishop Ingham told the commission.

“How many times do you have to say [no]?”

The Vatican’s decision to defrock Mr Nestor took more than five years from the date of appeal, causing great frustration from Bishop Ingham, the commission heard.

“It was dragging on for so long [and] John was getting angrier about it,” Bishop Ingham said.

“I kept saying ‘No, no, no’ he couldn’t minister.”

“I was thinking well, you know, you’ve got to hold the line here, but it’s going on for a long time.”

Like Archbishop Wilson, Bishop Ingham told the commission he would have resigned if Mr Nestor had been allowed to continue in the ministry.

“I’d have had to,” he said when asked if he was prepared to step down as bishop.

“If [we’d] struck a stone wall, and in view of the situation we had here, you couldn’t live with your conscience, could you?”

Mr Nestor is not expected to appear at the hearing, which continues next week.