Hunter victims in trans-Tasman push for expanded NZ child abuse inquiry

AUSTRALIAN victims of notorious St John of God Brother Bernard McGrath have urged New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to expand a child abuse royal commission after McGrath’s fight against extradition from New Zealand stopped the Australian royal commission from a public inquiry into the Catholic order.

Victims, their families and advocates in Australia and New Zealand are mobilising after the New Zealand Government established the child abuse royal commission on February 1, but controversially restricted investigations to sexual and physical abuse allegations between 1950 and 1999 where the state was involved.

Ms Ardern and Children’s Minister Tracey Martin said the royal commission could investigate abuse cases involving children under state care in church facilities but the inquiry was “about the people, not the institutions”. The restriction could rule out up to 50 per cent of complainants, critics say.

McGrath's victims sent by the state to the notorious Marylands home for boys near Christchurch would be within the scope of the royal commission, but victims sent by their parents would not, Ms Martin confirmed on Wednesday.

Church schools and facilities without state referrals could fall outside the royal commission's terms of reference and might not be investigated despite abuse cases, critics fear. 

New Zealand victims’ advocate Murray Heasley said the royal commission ran the risk of being “a Clayton’s royal commission, the one where you are not really having a royal commission but want to show you ticked the box”.

The mother and sister of a McGrath victim, who wept in court on Friday as the gruesome details of McGrath’s crimes against 12 boys at Morisset’s Kendall Grange home were outlined, said: “If they don’t expand the terms of reference it will be like St John of God has hidden behind a paedophile, and the New Zealand Government is letting them get away with it.”

If they don’t expand the terms of reference it will be like St John of God has hidden behind a paedophile, and the New Zealand Government is letting them get away with it.

Mother and sister of Brother Bernard McGrath victim

Last week Philippines ambassador to New Zealand, Jesus Domingo, wrote to Ms Ardern calling for an expanded royal commission, in part because of the child sex crimes of notorious Hunter paedophile priest Denis McAlinden.

The priest sexually abused at least one girl in New Zealand after Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Leo Clarke sent him there in the 1980s after decades of sexually abusing Australian children, and allowed the priest to retire to the Philippines in the 1990s where he lived near a school.

In a New Zealand radio interview Mr Domingo said the “first level of concern” for the Philippines Government was “Australian and New Zealand priests going to the Philippines and the abuse they may have committed”.

St John of God whistleblower Dr Michelle Mulvihill said the terms of reference had to be broadened because the order had been “able to slip under the radar over and over again without public scrutiny or questioning about how they responded to victims” and “still blames the media for all its woes”.

The Australian royal commission found 40 per cent of St John of God Brothers were alleged child sex offenders, the highest percentage of alleged offenders in any institution investigated by the commission.

It advised McGrath victims it could not hold a public hearing into the order because of the risk of prejudicing his trial and that of a second St John of God Kendall Grange offender, Brother John Clegg.

New Zealand-born McGrath, 70, was sentenced to 33 years’ jail in Sydney on Friday after three previous jail sentences in Australia and New Zealand for crimes against children in St John of God facilities. He was charged by Lake Macquarie detectives with more than 250 offences at Kendall Grange in 2012 and fought extradition from New Zealand only weeks after the Australian child sexual abuse royal commission was established in November, 2012.

His sentencing was two months after the royal commission presented its final report to the Australian Government.

Sydney District Court Judge Sarah Huggett said she had “no doubt at all that systemic abuse of children at Kendall Grange was taking place” during the period of McGrath’s offending between 1978 and 1986.

Judge Huggett said that “appallingly” McGrath was transferred from St John of God’s Marylands school near Christchurch to Kendall Grange in late 1977 “when allegations were made about his conduct at Marylands School”.

Dr Mulvihill said evidence at trials in St John of God facilities in New Zealand and Australia showed the need for the New Zealand royal commission to investigate the order, where the current terms of reference restricted complaints to boys at Marylands under state care.    

“Surely it is time the New Zealand Government stood up to this order and demanded answers,” Dr Mulvihill said.

Long-term Catholic Church whistleblower priest Tom Doyle, who is advising and supporting child abuse victims in New Zealand and Australia, said a royal commission had to expand to cover all church facilities “because they are the worst offenders”.

Hunter man John, a victim of McGrath who suffered severe, painful and humiliating sexual, physical and emotional abuse at Kendall Grange from the age of nine, said churches would be “getting away with it” if the terms of reference weren’t expanded.