Priest’s Aboriginal victims sue Pope Francis over church’s failures – Sydney Morning Herald
If successful it would represent the first time an Australian court has punished the church – as distinct from compensating victims of abuse – for its failure to protect children from paedophile priests.
The claim lodged this week will test Pope Francis’s public commitment to treat all cases of clerical abuse with the “utmost seriousness’’ and the practical reach of Victorian civil law into the Vatican.
As of Friday, the Melbourne-based lawyers for the plaintiffs, Angela Sdrinis Legal, were waiting for the Holy See’s representative in Australia, Papal Nuncio Adolfo Tito Yllana, to accept service of the writ on the Pope’s behalf.
Angela Sdrinis said the Vatican’s refusal to accept service had frustrated previous claims against the church brought elsewhere around the world.
“It is about getting the Pope and the Vatican to accept responsibility,” Ms Sdrinis told The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
“What possible excuse could they have for not laicising him [Glennon]?”
Glennon, a charismatic, guitar-playing priest and karate teacher from Melbourne’s northern suburbs who established a youth camp outside the town of Lancefield, first pleaded guilty to a child sex offence in 1978 – the indecent assault a year earlier of a 10-year-old girl – and was sentenced to two years’ jail.
Despite this, he was able to use his status as an ordained minister of the church to gain access to children and abuse them for 23 more years.
By the time of his death in 2014 he was in jail for the rape, sexual assault and physical abuse of 15 children. Police suspect he abused many more victims.
The principal claim against church authorities here and in Rome is they did nothing to stop him.
“By acquiescing in Fr Glennon’s continuing egregious conduct against children after his release from prison in 1979, failing to publicly denounce his behaviour and keeping his abuse of children a secret, the defendants allowed Fr Glennon to continue to avail himself of opportunities in the community to engender and then breach the trust of parishioners and their children,’’ the statement of claim reads.
“At all material times [the defendants] were in a position to warn the public of the danger that Fr Glennon posed to children. They did not do so.’’
Glennon was one of Australia’s worst paedophile priests. He targeted vulnerable children from migrant families and cynically cultivated the trust of Aboriginal families by professing to have a deep knowledge of Indigenous culture.
At Karaglen, the bush retreat he established outside Lancefield, north of Melbourne, he invited families to take part in self-styled corroborees. After he plied the parents with alcohol, he molested their children.
The three plaintiffs in the Supreme Court claim against the Pope were each abused at Karaglen and at Glennon’s house over several years, from the ages of seven or eight. One of the boys was repeatedly raped. Another said Glennon threatened to kill his parents and take custody of him if he told anyone about his abuse.
Their ordeal covers a nine-year period, from 1983 to 1991. During this time, Glennon gained national notoriety when broadcaster Derryn Hinch publicly revealed his prior convictions while he was awaiting trial on further charges.
For Hinch, the outing of Glennon as a repeat child sex offender became a cause celebre. He was charged, convicted and eventually jailed for contempt after a failed High Court appeal and later, formed his eponymous Justice Party to launch a political career.
For the three plaintiffs, the broadcaster’s high-profile campaign had a different outcome. Glennon’s lawyers cited the adverse publicity to secure a stay in the prosecution and he was released on bail and continued to abuse the boys.
Glennon was finally jailed in 1992 for multiple child sex crimes and remained behind bars until his death.
The Melbourne Archdiocese withdrew Glennon’s faculties as a priest after his 1978 conviction but only the Vatican had the power to laicise him.
In a 1994 letter petitioning the Vatican to take action, then archbishop of Melbourne Frank Little said there was “abundant evidence” Glennon had continued to present himself as a man of the cloth.
This included presiding over baptisms, confirmation, confession and administering other sacraments. One of his criminal trials was shown a video of Glennon leading a mass at Karaglen, with a procession of robed altar boys.
Archbishop Comensoli’s predecessor Denis Hart told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse that Archbishop Little first petitioned the Vatican in 1990 to have Glennon laicised and again in 1994.
It was not until 1999 – after Archbishop Little’s successor George Pell vowed to bring it to the personal attention of the Pope – that John Paul II issued a decree expelling Glennon from the priesthood.
The Melbourne archdiocese confirmed it was aware of the claim before the Supreme Court.
“The crimes of Michael Glennon were horrendous and the archdiocese fully acknowledges the deep hurt of those vulnerable people he wounded,” a spokesperson said on Friday.
“It was on his arrest [in 1978] that Glennon’s abusing ways first came to the attention of the archdiocese. He was immediately placed on administrative leave and his priestly faculties were consequently removed. He was never again permitted by the church to minister as priest.
“Tragically, after he was released from Pentridge, he continued to offend.”
The decision to join the current Pope to the Supreme Court claim reflects the complex legal structures of the church where a priest is supervised by his local diocese but under canon law, can only be laicised or excommunicated for sex crimes against children by Rome.
It is rare in Australia for courts to award exemplary damages in sex abuse cases.
Earlier this year, the ACT Supreme Court awarded exemplary damages against an Australian National University residential college for its inadequate response towards a student raped during a hazing ritual.
In Victoria, the most recent example is the 2015 case of Dassi Erlich, one of three sisters allegedly molested by their school principal, Malka Leifer.
In that case, Victorian Supreme Court Justice Jack Rush awarded exemplary damages against the Adass Israel School for its “disgraceful” conduct in arranging for Ms Leifer to flee the country.
Ms Leifer’s appeal against her extradition from Israel is due to be heard next week.
If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.
Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.