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Royal Commission releases final report into Neerkol abuse

Justice Peter McClellan

Final report: Justice Peter McClellan, from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

THE Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has released its final report into allegations of child sexual abuse at St Joseph’s Orphanage, Neerkol, in Rockhampton.
The report follows a public hearing held in April 2015, which dealt with abuse at the orphanage between 1940 and 1975 and the response from the Sisters of Mercy, who operated the orphanage, the Diocese of Rockhampton and Queensland Government agencies.
The commission heard evidence from 12 former residents of the orphanage who detailed the serious emotional, physical and sexual abuse by priests, nuns and grounds workers.
Former orphanage residents gave evidence to the Royal Commission that they did not tell anyone about the abuse at the time it was occurring.
Some did not tell anyone because they had no-one to tell and did not think they would be believed.
The commission heard evidence about the degrading treatment of the children at the orphanage by some of the Sisters and employees and the appalling conditions in which the children lived.
The commission’s final report concluded that the punishment administered by some nuns and employees was cruel and excessive and did not accord with the regulations in place under the relevant legislative framework.
The final report also concluded that the Queensland government failed to sufficiently supervise and protect the children in the orphanage by not ensuring adequately trained staff were employed as department inspectors and by not ensuring appropriate scrutiny over the circumstances in which the children were living.
Between 1993 and 1996, four former residents of the orphanage brought their experiences of sexual abuse directly to the attention of then Rockhampton Bishop Brian Heenan and Mercy Sister Berneice Loch.
Additionally, in 1993, another survivor who had not lived at the orphanage but who had been abused by the parish priest Fr Reginald Durham, complained to Bishop Heenan.

Bishop Brian Heenan

Bishop Brian Heenan

The commissioners were satisfied that Bishop Heenan and Sr Loch’s lack of training in detecting and responding to child sexual abuse undermined their capacity to deal effectively with complaints of child sexual abuse by former residents between 1993 to 1996. By late 1996, the Queensland Police Service was investigating allegations of child sexual abuse against a number of former priests and lay workers who had worked or provided services at the orphanage.
Fr Durham was subsequently charged and convicted of sexual offences. The commission report noted during sentencing submissions, a character reference written by Bishop Heenan was tendered to the court.
Bishop Heenan agreed in evidence he wrote the character reference even though he was aware of other sexual allegations against Fr Durham and believed them to be true.

Sr Berneice Loch

Sr Berneice Loch

In the reference, Bishop Heenan referred to Fr Durham’s “unique gift with youth” and wrote, “I ask that the incredible amount of good he has done will be weighed against the failings that have also been part of his life”.
In evidence Bishop Heenan said that he could have overstated Fr Durham’s character in the last paragraph of his reference.
The commission report concluded that Bishop Heenan, in his support of Fr Durham, failed to have regard to the negative impact his show of support would have on the victims of Fr Durham’s sexual abuse.
The commission found that in many of the historical cases the Sisters and the diocese lacked compassion in dealing with survivors.
The commission noted that in early 1997, the Sisters of Mercy formed a group to formulate processes and guidelines for the response to, and prevention of, child sexual abuse.
In a statement the commission said it was “satisfied the diocese and the Sisters settled compensation claims with former residents despite legal advice they were in a strong position to defeat the claims because of the age of the claims”.
In a joint statement from the diocese and the Sisters of Mercy, Rockhampton Bishop Michael McCarthy and Sr Loch commended the survivors who shared their heartbreaking stories at the public hearing.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with them and we hope the Royal Commission process may assist in their healing,” they said.
“We again reaffirm our apology to the survivors for the pain they endured.”
Since last year’s hearing, the Diocese of Rockhampton has implemented a number of changes including the formation of a Child Safeguarding Committee to oversee all aspects of child protection within the diocese, as well as the appointment of a diocesan child protection officer.
The Sisters of Mercy have built on the measures made available to survivors since 1997 through the offering of a wide range of assistance and support to meet their identified needs.

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