A retired Catholic bishop described a pedophile priest as having a “unique gift with youth” in a character reference for the man’s court sentence.
Former head of the Catholic diocese of Rockhampton in Queensland Brian Heenan told a royal commission on Friday he regretted parts of the 1999 reference letter in support of the disgraced former member of his clergy, Reginald Durham.
Durham, who is now deceased, was allowed to continue teaching religion to primary school children for more than two years after several people came forward with claims he’d abused them as chaplain at the Neerkol orphanage in the 1960s and 1970s.
But he wasn’t forced to resign as a church employee until he was formally charged in 1997, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard on Friday.
He was later convicted of six counts of indecently dealing with a girl under 17, but ultimately avoided further charges after he was declared mentally unfit.
Bishop Heenan told the commission his comments about Durham’s “unique gift” had referred to the former priest’s interest in the cadet movement and sporting activities at the orphanage.
“I would probably write it differently now,” he said.
Former Neerkol residents gave harrowing accounts of extreme physical, psychological and sexual abuse inflicted by nuns and priests at the orphanage at a public hearing in Rockhampton this week.
Facing a full day of probing cross examination, Bishop Heenan admitted many aspects of his response to their initial claims were inadequate or inappropriate.
He said he would regret “for the rest of my days” describing the allegations as “scurrilous”, and that he had wrongly considered Durham too old to be a risk to children in the 1990s.
The bishop admitted he’d been trying to protect the reputation of the Catholic church but denied shielding his fellow priests.
In 1998 he issued a formal apology to victims.
Later the diocese and Sisters of Mercy, who ran Neerkol orphanage, jointly paid almost $791,000 to 72 former residents in an out-of-court settlement.
Bishop Heenan is expected to return as a witness when the inquiry resumes on Monday.
The hearing into historical allegations of child abuse at the Neerkol St Joseph’s Orphanage near Rockhampton, which was operated by the Sisters of Mercy until 1978, is expected to conclude next week.