Pedophile priest had ‘gift with youth’

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.

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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.

Bali Nine execution looms 10 years on

The beheading of two domestic workers in Saudi Arabia makes no difference to Indonesia’s plans to execute two Australians and eight others, its attorney-general says.

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Friday marks 10 years since Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were arrested for the Bali Nine heroin smuggling plot, and Sukumaran’s 34th birthday.

He will spend it in an isolated cell on Nusakambangan Island, not far from where he and Chan would be sent to the firing squad as soon as this month.

Their legal quest for mercy rests with the same court that has previously recommended an option for a life sentence after a decade of reform.

Lawyers last week lodged a challenge with the Constitutional Court to challenge the clemency process, but the court is yet to register it.

Barrister Julian McMahon says in 2007, the same court upheld the constitutional validity of the death penalty, but also recommended that a death row prisoner who showed rehabilitation after 10 years have the option of being re-sentenced to a fixed term.

“There’s absolutely no doubt my two clients have done a heroic job in reforming themselves and many others,” Mr McMahon told AAP.

“I see that as an opportunity to enliven the constitutional court jurisprudence.”

Chan is now a pastor and Sukumaran now a painter, and both had a hugely positive impact on fellow inmates at Kerobokan jail.

But President Joko Widodo refused clemency to the men and argues there is a “drugs emergency”.

No date has been fixed for the executions of the Sydney men and eight other drug offenders, but officials are considering a date after the Asian African Conference ends on April 24.

There were protests outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Jakarta on Friday following the beheading of two Indonesian domestic workers this week.

Indonesia’s government has lodged official protests over the fact no notice was given.

Asked if it would have any impact on Indonesia’s own execution plans Attorney-General HM Prasetyo told reporters: “Oh no. We respect the rule of law.

“The difference is that we provide notification of an execution.”

He said he was still waiting for the results of the prisoners’ legal appeals before setting an execution date.

Besides Chan and Sukumaran, Frenchman Serge Atlaoui and Ghanian Martin Anderson have filed for Supreme Court judicial reviews.

Atlaoui, a welder, has always denied the charges against him, arguing he believed he was working in an acrylics factory, not an ecstasy lab.

His wife Sabine told reporters in Jakarta on Friday that after two months in Indonesia with the executions looming, she was returning to France under the same uncertainty.

“We still have hope in the Supreme Court decision,” she said.

“For me, it’s unimaginable that my husband will be executed.”

Lawyers for Mary Jane Fiesta Veloso, a Filipina also facing execution, are waiting for the Philippines government to access documents before filing for a second judicial review.

Sukumaran and Chan were identified as the leaders of the plot to smuggle 8.3kg of heroin, taped to the bodies of young mules, on April 17, 2005.

Van Gaal must solve defensive conundrum at Chelsea

Third-placed United will arrive at Stamford Bridge on Saturday on a run of six league victories but last weekend’s 4-2 derby demolition of champions Manchester City came at a cost.

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Midfielder Michael Carrick has a calf problem, Daley Blind sustained an ankle injury in a hefty challenge from City captain Vincent Kompany and defenders Phil Jones and Marcus Rojo also picked up knocks. “It is the worst scenario,” Van Gaal told a news conference on Friday.

“Marcos and Phil can both play left central defender and Jonny Evans is also suspended so I do not have many choices. Daley Blind and Michael Carrick could play as a holding midfield player and I do not have another option. It is a puzzle.”

Van Gaal, who struggled with a lengthy injury list at the start of the season, may deploy captain Wayne Rooney in midfield alongside former Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata.

Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea have a seven-point lead and a game in hand at the top but the west Londoners have looked less than convincing in recent weeks and laboured to a 1-0 victory over Queens Park Rangers last weekend.

United would move above second-placed Arsenal, who play Reading in an FA Cup semi-final on Saturday, and within five points of leaders Chelsea with victory at Stamford Bridge.

Despite their recent hot streak, however, Van Gaal believes winning the title is out of United’s reach. “It is still possible,” Van Gaal said. “But it is not logical. It is more ‘when’ and ‘if’. I don’t believe in ‘when’ and ‘if’. I believe in facts.

“We can lay pressure on Chelsea’s shoulders and then you never know. I think Chelsea is satisfied with a draw. Of course, they want to beat Manchester United and we want to beat them.”

(Reporting by Michael Hann, editing by Ed Osmond)

Greece starts assets sales with horse racing gambling licence

The agency announced in March it would proceed with the sale of the exclusive betting rights to OPAP, the country’s dominant gambling firm, which won the licence last year after offering 40 million euros (£26.

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61 million).

“HRADF…invited the successful bidder, OPAP Ιnvestments Ltd, to sign the concession contract on April 24,” the agency said in a statement on Friday.

Betting on horse racing in Greece had been run by a state-owned group.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told Reuters on Thursday that state assets were one of the thorny issues in talks with the EU/IMF creditors assessing whether the cash-strapped country can get further bailout aid.

Privatisations have been a key demand of the country’s international lenders. The election of Tsipras’ government in January on promises to end austerity and block “fire-sales” cast doubt on the future of Greece’s privatisations plan.

Greece has a series of ongoing tenders for the divestment of state assets, including the sale of a 67 percent stake in its biggest port Piraeus and the lease of a bundle of 14 regional airports to a joint venture led by German airport operator Fraport.

In a reform list sent to the creditors last month, Athens estimated privatisation revenues of 1.5 billion euros this year.

The government has made clear that it will honour all existing contracts.

It has also said that it favours joint ventures and wants the state to keep a minimum stake in its assets to boost social security funding and protect workers’ labour rights.

(Reporting by Angeliki Koutantou; Editing by Keith Weir)

Vettel not expecting any gifts from Mercedes

“Both of them are professional enough to handle the situation,” the German told reporters ahead of the fourth race of the season.

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Rosberg and double world champion Hamilton went wheel-to-wheel at Sakhir last season and this year’s race has been spiced up by a spat between the team mates in China last Sunday.

Rosberg accused Hamilton, who won in Shanghai from pole position, of compromising his race by not driving quick enough while leading and exposing him to the threat of Vettel immediately behind.

Hamilton suggested Rosberg had not tried hard enough.

A clash between the two on Sunday would likely benefit Vettel, the winner in Malaysia who has finished on the podium in his three races with Ferrari since leaving Red Bull, but he is not counting on it.

“For us, it is irrelevant,” he said. “We need to look after ourselves, and if they are in trouble with each other and take each other out, everyone benefits, not just us, so it would be welcome.

“But equally we are not expecting that. As I’ve said, they are professionals and they know what they are doing.”

Vettel famously collided with his Australian team mate Mark Webber at Red Bull in 2010, while Rosberg and Hamilton made contact in Belgium last year with the Briton retiring from the race.

They also went wheel to wheel in Bahrain in what turned out to be one of the thrilling races in a season dominated by Mercedes.

Hamilton is again leading the championship, 13 points clear of Vettel and 17 ahead of Rosberg, but Ferrari are far more competitive and ready to pounce.

“You have to be realistic,” said Vettel, who finished third in China. “Mercedes have the strongest package at the moment, both drivers are doing a very good job, which makes them difficult to beat.

“Hopefully, we can be a little closer here compared to last week.

“I expect to be in a good position. So far this year, no matter the conditions, the ambient temperature, track temperature, I’ve always felt comfortable in the car,” added the German.

“It seems to work in all sorts of conditions — dry or wet, hot or cold — so we should be in reasonable shape.”

(Editing by Ed Osmond)