Two senior Catholic church figures formerly from Wollongong have told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse about their experiences in dealing with the “huge problem” in the diocese in the 1990s.
Appearing during the 16th public hearing on abuse within the Catholic church, long time director of Wollongong’s Catholic welfare agency, Kath McCormack this week spoke about her experiences working with survivors and victims of child sexual assault.
Likewise, Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson, who was the Bishop of Wollongong between 1997 and 2000, described how he and Ms McCormack organised a meeting to hear from victims of child sexual abuse.
Between 1993 and 1996, the Diocese had come under public criticism for its response to child sexual abuse, both from the Illawarra Mercury and in the Wood Royal Commission.
In 1997, then priest John Gerard Nestor was convicted and then acquitted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old alter boy in Wollongong. After he was acquitted, complaints against Nestor’s conduct in regards to children continued to be made and he was laicised – or removed from the clergy – in 2008.
“I had the good fortune, when I went to Wollongong and walked straight into a huge problem in this area, to be able to work with Kath McCormack, who at that stage was the head of Catholic Welfare in Wollongong,” Archbishop Wilson told the commission.
“In that process, she organised with me a meeting that we held quietly, so that all the victims - all the people who were survivors were able to come and talk and share with me.
“That happened on one Saturday afternoon and lasted several hours.”
In her testimony, Ms McCormack said a “professional standards resource group” set up at the time “worked extremely well” thanks to lay people – like psychologists, lawyers and community service workers – who “really helped the bishop to make good decisions and really make sure that the victims and survivors were supported”.
She also credited women within the Wollongong diocese for “doing all the work around child protection”.
Ms McCormack criticised bishops’ management of priests as being “soft-handed”, saying their pastoral approach was all about forgiveness.
“They’re not dealing with the issue. The recipient is just continuing that behaviour,” she said.
“One of my experiences is that with working with the bishops, I've been able to enable them to take some responsibility for what has happened and they've really learnt about sexual abuse of children, et cetera, but it has been the clergy who have not come with them.
“And even to this day, there would still be some priests who would not agree with what the bishop is trying to do for the care and protection in their diocese.”