Society

The Mad Priest and the Campaign to Get George Pell

More than sixty years ago a new teacher, Brother Bonaventure, arrived at our small country school, staffed by Marist Brothers. He was very odd, emotionally labile and easily provoked. We were a class of young rural boys, about eleven years old, and he could not relate to us. He chased boys around the classroom, and even into the school yard, in his efforts to punish us. He could not teach us anything. We soon realised that he was mad.

We did everything we could to provoke him. Brother Bonaventure could not cope at all. Classes were chaotic, and he lasted only one term. Soon after, he left the Marist order. Unwisely, the Melbourne archdiocese allowed him to enter the seminary and he was ordained a priest, Fr Peter Searson. He proceeded to create havoc wherever he went. I now realise that he was a paranoid schizophrenic.

 

Sunbury, 1977 to 1983

At Sunbury, as parish priest, Searson locked the assistant priest, Phil O’Donnell, out of the presbytery, refused to let him say Mass in the parish church or act as chaplain to the schools, and refused to pay his stipend. Even before he took up the appointment, O’Donnell had told Archbishop Frank Little that Searson was mad. O’Donnell persisted with his pastoral role, but wrote frequently to Little informing him of this strange relationship with the parish priest. [1]

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The school headmaster at Sunbury wrote a letter to Auxiliary Bishop O’Connell about financial misconduct. Searson had used the school account to buy a car and fraudulently claim sales tax exemption. Parishioners were leaving because their priest could not “relate to people as a pastor should” and had “some sort of disorder that [one] can only describe as paranoia”. [2] Other complaints by parishioners included shop lifting, and offensive behaviour towards women (including nuns). Searson should have been removed from parish duties because he was mentally ill.

 

Doveton, 1984 to 1996

Eventually, Little moved Searson to Doveton. an outer suburban parish with many lower-income families and social problems—single parents struggling to raise children, health and other personal problems. When Graeme Sleeman was appointed headmaster in 1982 the Doveton school was in a sorry state, with high levels of absenteeism and vandalism, and low teacher morale. Sleeman had an interesting career before becoming an “accidental headmaster” at Doveton. He had been a professional footballer and coach, country school headmaster, seminarian and interstate truckdriver. He turned the school around in a year with his enthusiasm, by involving the whole community in school activities in school hours and in the evenings. When Sleeman found the parish priest Father Rubeo in bed with one of the local female parishioners he told Rubeo to leave and not return. Sleeman earned the strong support of the parents and parishioners, although he was no typical conservative headmaster. He once turned up to celebrate the start of the school year dressed as Mother Mary McKillop! [3]

When Searson arrived at Doveton he built a high chain-wire fence around the school and padlocked the gates. Even the teachers could not get in! He interfered with the work of the headmaster and teachers, and demanded that teachers go to Mass each morning and take classes to confession frequently. He made unwelcome visits to classrooms without notice, and asked teachers questions about their private lives. Sometimes he humiliated them in public. Searson was their employer, and was sometimes late with their salary payments, or made snide remarks when handing over their salary cheques.

Parents and teachers were alarmed and children were frightened by his strange comments, verbal abuse and manner of physical contact. He would grab, prod or hit them in the school yard, and even make girls sit on his knee during confession. At one point he was using a tape recorder in the confessional room. Children thought he was mad. There were occasions where he brandished a gun or knife at the children, and instances of physical abuse. He swung an injured cat in the air and hurled it over a fence, hitting a young boy arriving at school on a bike. A recurring theme was his insulting attitude towards women, in particular towards low-income, immigrant or single mothers who struggled to afford the school fees. Dooley of the Catholic Education Office (CEO) described Searson as “devious and dangerous”.

In May 1986 a young girl rushed from the church in a distressed state. Sleeman spoke to the girl and the teacher who witnessed the girl’s distress, and wrote to the CEO. The parents of the girl and a teacher feared that Searson “may have made advances of a sexual nature”. No one had directly observed the incident. CEO officials questioned Searson, who denied the incident, and they took no action because there was “not enough evidence”.

All this bizarre behaviour of Searson caused problems for the headmaster and he became distressed. He may have suspected the cause of the problem—that Searson was mad. Sleeman had grown up in the grounds of the Sunbury Psychiatric Hospital and other mental health institutions where his father worked.

In September 1986 Sleeman wrote to Archbishop Little asking for action to remove Searson. Little was unmoved, and unsupported by the CEO, Sleeman resigned. His letter of resignation was worded on the advice of a CEO official so as not to disclose his reasons for resignation. This letter was then used by the CEO to deny him further employment. As a result, he developed severe depression. More than a decade later, Sleeman and two other teachers at Doveton received compensation through the Melbourne Response for the way that Searson and the CEO had destroyed their teaching careers.

In the same month Stephen Vaughan, a local Senior Sergeant of Police, and former president of the parents’ association, wrote a long letter to Archbishop Little on behalf of the teachers and parents, deploring the loss of Sleeman, and detailing at length the complaints of Searson’s disturbed behaviour. There was no complaint of sexual abuse. [4]

Many other parishioners wrote to the cathedral about Searson. These letters are moving to read, from working people who were unused to writing letters to persons in authority, and had built the church and school years before when Doveton was a new suburb. They wrote very personal letters to their Archbishop describing the cruel ways in which Searson had abused them, and pleaded to be freed from this priest who was mentally ill. They told the Archbishop that they could no longer belong to the parish that had been an important part of their lives for many years.

A four-page summary of the many complaints about Searson was provided to the Royal Commission on archdiocesan letterhead, apparently compiled by a secretary of Archbishop Little. [5] These descriptions of Searson’s behaviour provide ample evidence of his mental illness.

Little’s reply to Stephen Vaughan was polite but avoided discussion of Searson’s behaviour. However, in November 1986 Little invited Searson to resign. Searson refused to resign, denying all allegations. Little did not force him to go. There was no respite for the teachers, parents and parishioners of Doveton. The attitude of the CEO was that headmasters were expected to “keep a lid on” the problem. This approach failed.

In 1989, five years after Searson came to Doveton, a further petition was submitted to the CEO, with a familiar list of complaints. George Pell, Auxiliary Bishop for the region, was also approached by a deputation of teachers together with a union official. At the Royal Commission twenty-five years later this meeting was pivotal to constructing the adverse findings against George Pell.

It was Searson’s behaviour towards the whole parish community about which the teachers complained. There was no allegation of sexual abuse. They did not ask Pell to remove Searson, as Pell had no authority over the CEO or Searson—this was the preserve of the Archbishop. The teachers made it clear that they were expressing concern about Searson’s mental health. All Pell could do was report the complaints to the Archbishop, which he did. Searson was not removed, because the Archbishop still did not appreciate the bizarre behaviour of Searson. Pell also visited Searson, who promised to improve but failed to do so.

 

Mental illness

Mental illness in the workplace is a potent cause of conflict, especially when persons with severe personality disorders or borderline psychotic illness are appointed to positions of authority over others. When those workers complain, higher management tend to react negatively towards them, because the complaint is a reflection upon their decision to appoint the manager. It is a regrettable reality that it is sometimes hard to draw the line between a firm, effective manager and a psychopathic tyrant.

Schizophrenia is characterised by delusions, hallucinations, disordered thought processes and lack of insight into behaviour. It is difficult to diagnose if there are no florid psychotic episodes. The early manifestations are very variable and many psychiatrists will prefer to describe patients as having a borderline personality disorder. An example was a patient of mine who was an adviser to a cabinet minister in a large Australian state. When he sat at meetings with the minister, he endured an intense desire to kill him, so strong that he had to give up the job. He was able to arrange a job as manager of a small country hospital but this job did not end well.

Searson had many signs of schizophrenia. He sometimes wore an army uniform, and variously stated that he had been a US Army chaplain in Europe, served in the Australian Army in the Second World War, and was a chaplain in the Army Reserve. Msgr Cudmore, the Vicar General, had spent many years as a chaplain with the Australian Army and still held senior rank. He dismissed Searson’s absurd delusions in colourful language. Searson’s only army appointment was as lieutenant (temporary) in a school cadet unit.

When discussing parish finances, Searson made outrageously false claims. Parents said, “he tells lots of lies”. His paranoid ideation was evident in threats of litigation against Dandenong Police and at meetings with CEO officials. No doubt this was also the cause of the hostility that he showed to all those around him. Some people reported his habit of inserting strange phrases or sentences that were out of context with the conversation in progress, indicating his disordered thought processes. His lack of insight was illustrated by his sermon on the evils of pornography, given at Mass to a first communion class of innocents and their families.

There was no discussion of mental illness in the Royal Commission report, except for a throwaway line in the Executive Summary, after describing yet another bizarre incident: “it indicated that Father Searson was mentally unstable”. Searson’s behaviour was always seen through a prism of sexual offence.

 

Removal of Searson

In 1992 a “Special Issues Committee” was created by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) to address the need to collect information on child abuse by priests and religious. The ACBC recognised the absence of a robust method of investigation and the need for a redress scheme. The committee began investigating Searson and other priests, using the information supplied to them by Vicar General Cudmore and other priests.

Late in 1992 Searson was placed on leave and called into the cathedral to be examined by two psychiatrists. These reports have never been made public, but a former teacher at Doveton was told by Msgr Connors that Searson was found to have “psychopathic tendencies”. The Royal Commission had the power to obtain these reports, but did not do so.

In June 1993, following another incident of bizarre behaviour, it appears likely that an attempt was made to remove Searson’s faculties under Canon Law, on general grounds that he was unfit to perform his pastoral duties. Searson resisted this by appealing to Rome. The process under Canon Law by the Roman Curia was formal, quite similar to a Court of Appeal. In October 1993 Searson visited Rome, ostensibly to attend a study course, but more likely to defend himself before the Curia against the charges made. He was successful in his appeal, not surprisingly, as mental illness or personality disorder was unlikely to be accepted as grounds for removal from the priesthood. If this seems odd, consider that our civil employment laws may well take a dim view of dismissal on grounds of mental illness.

Archbishop Frank Little inevitably comes in for much criticism of his handling of child sex abuse, and without doubt his response to reports of sexual offences or misconduct by clergy was inadequate. He was a good and pious man, friendly, on first-name terms with all his priests and well regarded by them, but he found it difficult to reprimand them. Such was his respect for the priests who had taken Holy Orders that he could not contemplate that they might commit offences against children. His attitude was also affected by a malicious complaint against a priest who was a close friend from the time they had studied together in Rome. [8]

At about the same time, other priests were being investigated by civil and church authorities and charged with child abuse offences. Archbishop Little was finally forced to accept the reality that he had a number of priests who were sexual offenders. When he learned in 1994 and 1995 that there were many homosexual and other sexually active priests in his archdiocese Frank Little had a nervous breakdown. In January 1996 he went to Rome to ask for a Co-adjutor Archbishop to be appointed. Rome refused. Little was unable to cope with the abuse problem. In the end, he resigned.

 

Pell’s appointment

On Pell’s appointment everything changed. The CEO now wanted to get rid of Searson. Dissatisfied with the slow progress of the ACBC, Pell set up a world-first commission to investigate complaints against clergy in a robust way, and provided a redress scheme. He took the step of referring Searson to the newly established Melbourne Response, where Peter O’Callaghan conducted a formal investigation. O’Callaghan found in favour of a complainant (JS), which gave Pell the grounds to disregard the decision of the Roman Curia and remove Searson. O’Callaghan makes no mention of mental illness, and may not have had psychiatric reports available to him. Searson’s treatment history is unknown, but he died in a secure, special psychogeriatric hospital unit in 2009.

 

Royal Commission findings

The Royal Commission made two adverse finding against Pell. [6] The first was that Pell knew about allegations of sexual misconduct made against Searson. On the premise that the CEO had allegations of sexual abuse recorded in their files, counsel assisting made a false charge that Pell was denying the truth and claiming to be “deceived” by staff of the CEO. The premise of this assertion was false.

At the next hearings of Case 35 counsel assisting conducted lengthy examinations of several witnesses who were former staff of the CEO. Many documents were examined but counsel assisting was unable to point to any allegation of sexual abuse. For example, Catherine Briant had written a long report on the sorry state of the Doveton school and the bleak future for the school, including closure, if Searson was not removed. She specifically told the Commission that she was unaware of allegations of sexual abuse by Searson during her time at the regional office, and that Pell had never been misled by any official. [7] Counsel assisting had failed to establish her main accusation against Pell.

Yet a file note on Briant’s report showed that the CEO was well aware of Searson’s mental illness. They could do nothing because of Little’s attitude. On this matter they may have misled Pell. It was counsel assisting who was misleading the Royal Commissioners.

A second adverse finding was that Pell should have advised the Archbishop to remove Father Searson, but this finding fails for the same reason. Little was already aware of the need to remove Searson.

The Royal Commission relied heavily on the case of JS to construct its case against Searson and Pell, but she had a disturbed childhood after abuse by a family member, a disturbed adolescence including a suicide attempt, and later a failed marriage. This context was not given in the Royal Commission report. She had given different statements to different interviewers over a long period, and her incident was first investigated by police in 1988, who found, after a further interview with her in 1990, “no offence disclosed”. O’Callaghan was generous in his findings in her favour, but he pointed out to the Royal Commission that there were numerous inconsistencies in her statement to the Commission. [9]

Searson had a police file relating to complaints dating back to Sunbury. It was disingenuous to accuse Pell and other church officials of failing to report the complaints about Searson to police, as they had nothing to add to Searson’s police record in 1989. The police already had extensive reports from the Child Exploitation Unit (CEU), relating to his strange behaviour, financial misdeeds and association with other persons of interest to the CEU. He later pleaded guilty to a charge of physical assault upon a boy. An allegation of indecent behaviour with a teenage girl was recorded by police, and he grabbed the buttocks of an adult lady parishioner, but these cases never reached court.

Further, Senior Sergeant Vaughan was a member of the Parents’ Association at the Doveton school for most of Searson’s time in the parish, had served as president of the association, and was consulted by police from time to time. Police also discussed Searson with church officials, probably those of the Special Issues Committee. Police had formed their own view of him. Their files cast interesting light on the life of a madman.

The Royal Commission accepted a claim from Witness BVC that he was abused by Searson. This young man described his grooming to the homosexual lifestyle, a common enough event in our society. Neither corroborating witnesses nor police reports on the case were presented, nor had any approach been made to the Melbourne Response. The Royal Commission made much of this case, claiming that a “tragedy” could have been avoided if Pell had acted, but equally it may have been a fabrication.

There was no evidence (despite the opinion of the Grade Six boys) that Searson was a homosexual—the police reports, including those of the CEU described his sexual preference as “females” and named a regular female partner. The police wryly commented that the time she spent alone with Searson was “more than was needed for pastoral care”. Both BVC and his abuser may be named in the redacted reports of the CEU, who were interested in a cluster of paedophile families in Doveton. Searson’s only connection was that some of the children of this ring went to Holy Family School at Doveton and he knew some of the mothers of these children, whose fathers may have been in prison.

The “Villa Maria” case was accepted by counsel assisting without question. Peter O’Callaghan told the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry (VPI) and Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana told the Royal Commission that this case was not prosecuted because the Public Prosecutor considered the accusations a fabrication. [10] Counsel assisting did not tell the Royal Commissioners this, and the relevant police reports are hidden on the Commission website.

None of these additional cases against Searson by counsel assisting was based on evidence of probative value. The findings against Pell were the product of flawed legal method: a presumption of guilt and fitting the evidence to that presumption.

Keith Windschuttle in The Persecution of George Pell shows that the adverse findings in relation to the Ballarat diocese were also deficient—they were inconsistent with the evidence of credible witnesses.

The Royal Commission cost around $500 million, or more than $1 million per sitting day. The Searson case was examined on at least six days. For all this money, the Commission could at least have discovered Searson’s mental illness. The fixation of the Commission on Pell showed that its findings were predetermined. This raises fundamental questions about the establishment and integrity of the Royal Commission.

 

Motives of the Royal Commission

How did the Royal Commission come about? It was created in response to the demands of a group of plaintiff lawyers, Commission of Inquiry Now (COIN). They wanted the conviction of one or more senior Catholic clerics and changes to the law to facilitate access to the supposed “great wealth” of the Church. In 2012 their lengthy manifesto, delivered with a good dose of Calvinist anti-Catholic rhetoric, was put to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry, and repeated to the Royal Commission. [11] They were supported by a diverse group of activists and political appointees to the police and judicial system. The Royal Commission responded amply to their demands.

Meanwhile members of these groups were already busy fabricating the charges that were to put Pell in prison in 2019, aided by a huge media campaign lasting for over a decade and a raft of false accusations against Pell. Yet it was the Royal Commission treatment of Pell that really gave momentum to persuad the public that Pell must have been guilty of some offence.

 

Final words

History sometimes repeats itself. Almost forty years after I encountered Searson, a group of agitated Grade Six boys at Doveton rushed into a classroom and demanded that their teacher do something about Searson’s mad behaviour. They all tried to speak at once, so the teacher made them sit at their desks and write down what they thought of Searson. [12] The final words on Searson belong to one of these boys at Doveton (with spelling and emphasis preserved):

I think he is gay

I think something is rong about him.

He makes me feel uncof tebel

I think that father needs medical help.

HE IS MAD

I want to tell him what I think.

Notes and References

  1. Phil O’Donnell gave evidence at Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry and Royal Commission – transcripts available online
  2. Sunbury headmaster’s letter – CTJH.222.02002.0057
  3. Graham Sleeman gave evidence to the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry and Royal Commission – transcripts available on line.
  4. Stephen Vaughan letter 1986 – COM.0172.001.0171
  5. List of complaints on archdiocesan letterhead. – COM.172.001.171ref?
  6. Executive Summary, Case Study 35, page 19, and Redacted Report of Case Study 35, page 117.
  7. Catherine Briant report and Lalor’s memo – 222.01010.0122 and CTJH.222.01010.0126; Transcript Day 189, 27 April 2016, pp 19193 – 19228.
  8. Peter Connors, Royal Commission Transcript 2/12/2015 Page C13930.
  9. Submission by O’Callaghan, SUBM.1035.010.0001.
  10. Peter O’Callaghan, transcript of appearance, Victorian Parliamentary inquiry, 30 April 2013, page 10; Stephen Fontana, Transcript, Royal Commission, Day 131, 2 December 2015. Page C13898.
  11. A useful summary of the COIN submissions is provided by an address by Bryan Keon-Coen AM QC to the Victorian State Conference of the Australian Lawyers Alliance at Lorne, 17 May 2013, with a list of submissions attached.
  12. Carmel Rafferty – notes, COM0172.0001.1070

John Wheelahan is a former doctor in Victoria

13 comments
  • Michael Waugh

    Thank you Dr Wheelahan for your hard work in gathering the historical facts and explaining the apparent errors of the Royal Commission. Merely as an uninformed observer, one sensed the attitude of Counsel assisting and of the chairman of the Royal Commission was of unreasonable hostility to the Cardinal from the outset. Of course, this had become a societal norm in the astonishing heat of anti-Church media. This is the very reason that efforts like yours are so important in bringing some balance back into the debate. The public desperately needs a careful detailed account of facts to weigh against the inflamed anti-Church hostility. More strength to your arm.

  • norsaint

    The legal profession: the most corrupt in the country.

  • en passant

    If you have perverse desires the sex ‘industry’ cannot oblige, call alawyer

  • Peter OBrien

    If you read the Commission’s report the ‘get Pell’ focus is evident in a number of ways. For example, in dealing with specific cases, separate sections headed ‘What Cardinal Pell knew about xyz’ abound. Very few other clerics (most of them senior to Pell at the apposite time) are singled out in this way.

  • padmmdpat

    I spent a few years as a Trappist monk at Yarra Glen. After I left I kept in touch with one of the monks who became George Pell’s confessor and spiritual director when Pell was made an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne under Archbishop Frank Little. Without breaking the seal of confession, the monk told me that Pell would come to him in anguish and frustration, repeatedly saying, “Oh the folly of that man (Little); oh the folly! But there is nothing I can do about it because I don’t have the authority. What a mess that man is creating and what a mess he will leave behind.” And after Little’s retirement and death, Pell was left to carry the can and had it dumped all over him.

  • Salome

    Wonderful article and some informative and helpful comments. I often find the comments on this site interesting and helpful. Two comments posted under this article, however, do not come up to anything like the usual standard. But enough of that. It is my understanding (minor quibble here) that Royal Commissions don’t make ‘findings’, but merely offer opinions. On the issue of Pell’s powerlessness as a subordinate to Little, I recall a member of a victim’s support group/victims’ group on the radio some years ago saying words to the effect of, ‘So what if he tried to stop it when he got into power. What about all those years when he wasn’t in power?’ To which I responded (to an empty room), ‘He wasn’t in power.’

  • padmmdpat

    Salome, re your comment above -‘ ‘So what if he tried to stop it when he got into power. What about all those years when he wasn’t in power?’ To which I responded (to an empty room), ‘He wasn’t in power.’ Q.E.D.

  • sfw

    My children attended a catholic primary school in the northern suburbs not far from the Tulla Freeway in the early/mid 90’s. The parish priest was a strange unpleasant man, moaned constantly about his house not being new and how his car was almost five years old, rabidly aggressive with religion. I almost walked out of my second daughter and sons (twins) first communion, his sermon started on the evils of abortion along with graphic details then progressed to cancer, the priest became very loud, almost yelling about how painful a cancer death could be and that he wanted to die of cancer with blood and bodily fluids flowing from him and that he would be in extreme pain. I almost took the kids and walked out but then he stopped and to do so would have embarrassed them and they would have missed out on the party afterwards in the hall. I later on had dealings with a girl from their class that he had been molesting, she was very damaged. I don’t know what happened to him but there were more than a few disturbed priests out there. Not to mention my principal at secondary school – ‘Tex’ Weston.

  • Lewis P Buckingham

    ‘them and they would have missed out on the party afterwards in the hall. I later on had dealings with a girl from their class that he had been molesting, she was very damaged.’
    Perhaps it was time to fold your tent and slip silently away.
    Even now you could file a police report.
    Not only for her, but for all those who want reparation and treatment for those who suffered, without the scapegoating.

  • James Franklin

    That’s all well done and especially good on how the Royal Commission didn’t want to know about the mental illness issue. But I think it’s not exactly right to say “in November 1986 Little invited Searson to resign. Searson refused to resign, denying all allegations. Little did not force him to go.” Little’s letter (printed in the Royal Commission’s report) required Searson to resign. But Searson called his bluff, knowing that the canon law system wouldn’t back Little up (as indeed it didn’t in the appeal in the 1990s). Then there was nothing Little could do to force him to resign.

  • Sydgal

    Thank you, John, for your incredible work examining the exhibits and transcripts in the Searson case. Reading through the RC Report, it is clear that many of the teachers and parishioners did not like Searson and wanted him removed from the Parish. But there seem to be inconsistencies regarding the sexual offences. Regarding the 1974 Villa Maria incident, yes, the relevant VicPol statement is missing from the RC website but I did not realise the case was not prosecuted because the Public Prosecutor considered the accusations a fabrication. Yet the commissioners state “We accept the woman’s account as provided to police. We are satisfied that sometime around late 1974 Archbishop Little received a complaint that Father Searson had raped a young adult woman”. The complainant BVC (who as not cross examined) gave an account of his abuse in the 1990s but I found the idea that Searson would let him order Communion hosts over the telephone and give him candy quite at odds with teacher descriptions of Searson as controlling and tight with money. And it seemed strange that Doveton teachers would let BVC do gardening at the Presbytery if they had concerns about Searson’s behaviour from the mid-late 80s.

  • citizen

    Thank you for this informative article. Searson was completely mad and should have been locked up. Those poor children. Let down by the CSO and Little.

    I was struck when I read many of the papers submitted to the RC by the Melbourne Archdiocese, at the lack of action taken by Little in relation to many matters. It was shameful. Admittedly, I didn’t know him but with respect to the author, I am surprised to see him portrayed slightly sympathetically here.

    I read recently that Little was a moderniser. Was he responsible for the vandalism (IMHO) of many beautiful old churches in Melbourne?. High altars, communion rails etc ripped out. His comments on social issues were also at odds with Church teaching.

    I wonder did this disposition make him more likely to approach these abuse matters the way he did?

  • EJP

    Little was intellenctually a mediocrity who was only appointed because they wanted, finally, a Melbourne man and he was popular in the diocese. He was no moderniser, but he does seem to have seen his role as getting rid of the last elements of Mannix-ism. Except this matter.

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