By Linen No. 50
The Catholic Church has spent millions of dollars providing pensions, housing, and private medical insurance to convicted paedophile priests despite branding them “evil” and having most defrocked.
The Melbourne archdiocese alone is still financially supporting six former priests who have been convicted for committing sex crimes against children.
Parishioners have unwittingly been partly funding the assistance through their donations into church collection plates, which they believed went towards the local church or fundraising for retired priests.
Church records show two of the paedophiles, priests Wilfred Baker and David Daniel, received hundreds of thousands of dollars alone in annual pensions and entitlements.
Their victims received one-off payments of $31,000 to $37,000 under the church’s Melbourne Response redress scheme.
The decision to continue financially supporting disgraced priests was made by senior church figures in Melbourne and the top advisory council at the Vatican, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, according to documents tendered to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
A spokesman for the archdiocese of Melbourne said the church is currently providing support to six priests with criminal convictions for child sex crimes, including four who have been “laicised” or defrocked.
Nine other priests have received pensions, housing stipends or private health insurance after their convictions and until their deaths. Many of them had also been defrocked.
“We want to stress that the process as it was through the 1990s and into the 2000s has been changing significantly to a point where now the support is of extremely modest nature,” said Shane Healy, director of media and communications for the archdiocese.
The church is obligated under canon law to support all priests in retirement and old age, but the assistance provided to convicted priests was now “very low”, according to the spokesman.
Among those who received lifetime assistance was Father Wilfred “Bill” Baker, who molested at least 21 children.
The church had received complaints about him as early as 1978. He pleaded guilty to to 16 counts of indecent assault and 1 count of gross indecency in 1999.
The year before, Baker had been allowed to “retire”, a euphemism the church regularly used for priests who were stood down over sex abuse allegations.
The Priests Retirement Foundation paid Baker a pension and housing stipend worth $21,000 a year, as well as covered the costs of his car payments, registration and medical and automotive insurance. The church believes Baker was only priest to ever receive any financial assistance for car.
Adjusting for inflation, the pension and stipend payments would be worth about $33,000 a year now.
In 2010, the assistance was made conditional on Baker obeying an agreement that forbade him to leave his accommodation without permission, approach children or adolescents, celebrate mass in public, or “draw attention to himself”.
He died in 2014 ahead of facing new charges.
In contrast, Baker’s victims received an average one-off compensation payment of just $31,000 under the Melbourne Response.
Not all priests were treated the same, but the church’s commitment to them was lifelong. No financial support was ever provided while they were in prison.
Father Desmond Gannon was convicted of sex crimes on five separate occasions over the past two decades – in 1995, 1997, 2000, 2003 and 2009 – and the church cared for him up until his death.
At various times the support has included a pension, rental allowance and private health insurance.
In 2002, the archdiocese slashed his payments in recognition that the level of support being provided was “no longer appropriate” or consistent with the “Church’s response to issues relating to abuse of power and trust”.
Another convicted priest, David Daniel, was told the same year his stipend would be reduced to $12,000 a year.
But cutting them off completely was never considered an option.
In 2011, Archbishop Denis Hart petitioned to have Gannon defrocked by the Vatican because he had “perpetrated so much evil” and his continued presence in the church was a “cause of scandal to the faithful”.
“I do believe dismissal is imperative yet we will not neglect to care for him in his older age,” Archbishop Hart wrote.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith refused the request, twice, due to concerns about his “advanced age and his feebleness”.
Gannon died in April 2015 at an aged-care facility that cost up to $21,700 a year.
By comparison, the priest’s 22 known victims received an average one-off payment of just $33,000 under the Melbourne Response.
The church also continued to support Michael Glennon for nearly four decades in between prison stints from his first of five convictions in 1978, being defrocked in 1999 and his death two years ago.
The contrast in treatment between abuse victims and perpetrators has outraged Anthony Foster, the father of two of Father Kevin O’Donnell’s 49 victims.
The church offered $50,000 compensation for the trauma suffered by one of his daughters.
O’Donnell, on the other hand, was eligible for a pension and housing stipend between his “retirement” as an honoured pastor emeritus in 1992, conviction in 1995 and death in 1997.
The designation entitled a retired priest to additional remuneration and allowances because of its prestige.
“It’s horrific to think they offered Emma only $50,000 as way to move forward over the rest of her life, yet the church was willing to support a priest they knew was convicted and deserved nothing else than to have to go out into society and fend for himself once he was out of prison,” Mr Foster told The Sunday Age.
O’Donnell’s victims received an average one-off compensation payment of $31,000 each under the Melbourne Response.
Documents tendered to the royal commission also detail how past and current church leaders – including now Cardinal George Pell – took an active role in creating the support system.
In September 1996, then Archbishop of Melbourne Pell chaired a discussion about how three jailed priests – Desmond Gannon, Kevin O’Donnell and Michael Glennon – “can be helped” after their release.
“Possibility of a place (self-contained flat) in Box Hill. Father McMahon mentioned the need for treatment and was invited by the Archbishop to propose what is needed to assist them,” the minutes said.
The royal commission would later find that Gannon’s financial arrangements were orchestrated in such a way that the “support would not be likely to become public”.
Then Archbishop Pell also personally ordered that Wilfred Baker be provided with the top-line pension of a pastor emeritus in 1998 despite being aware of his offending.
That same year, he also sanctioned payments to suspected paedophile Peter Searson, telling him he was entitled to the same benefits as “priests in circumstances similar to yours”.
The Priests Retirement Fund, which is largely funded by contributions from parishioners, was the entity used to support disgraced priests until recently. The archdiocese of Melbourne says it now pays for their upkeep.
“Every bishop has a requirement to provide a minimum living support for all priests, regardless of who they are,” Archbishop Hart testified before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into sexual abuse in 2013.
The church has declined to comment on the total cost of supporting the 15 priests that have been convicted of child sex crimes or 15 other priests who have been identified as abusers but were never convicted in a criminal court.
The figure is likely to be at least several million dollars in total based on known payments to a number of the priests.
A representative of the archdiocese said the level support provided to convicted priests was determined on a case by case basis but was now “minor”.
“Private medical insurance is maintained to ensure these priests are not a burden on the taxpayer, and each priest’s financial circumstance is reviewed and decisions made according to their capacity to care for themselves. In some circumstances the archdiocese would provide rental accommodation at a modest level,” Mr Healy said.
“No one who is incarcerated ever gets any assistance or benefits while in prison.”