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Claims disgraced bishop failed to safeguard people in Palmerston North diocese

By Michael Hall of rnz.co.nz

Claims of a sex abuse cover-up and a failure to adequately protect women from sexual predation by a bipolar monk have surfaced in the diocese of disgraced bishop Charles Drennan.

Bishop Drennan had his resignation accepted by the Vatican earlier this month after an investigation into complaints by a young woman of inappropriate sexual behaviour.

It later emerged a second woman made a similar complaint several years ago.

This week there have been claims the bishop also failed to do enough to protect women visiting a remote monastery in Palmerston North, following an internal church probe that raised serious concerns of sexually inappropriate and threatening behaviour by a Trappist monk residing there.

Meanwhile, a man with two previous complaints of clerical child sex abuse upheld by the Church, has also claimed he was molested by a senior clergyman in the diocese and that this was covered up.

In September, the Church found the complaint was without evidence and couldn't be upheld, although the man was denied access to the report.

A survivor advocate believes the claims show clerical sex abuse "safeguarding" protocols and structures are meaningless unless bishops take ultimate responsibility in enforcing these and deal with the problem.

A Tauranga woman, who did not want to be named, told RNZ she wrote to Bishop Drennan and Bishop Peter Cullinane in September 2011 claiming she was sexually harassed during a five-night stay at the Southern Star Abbey at Ormondville earlier that month.

Her complaint was passed to John Jamieson, at the time director of the Church's National Office of Professional Standards (NOPS), and an investigation was launched.

She described the monk as "a law onto himself" and that his behaviour caused her to leave the monastery two days earlier than scheduled.

"It became apparent other members of the order, including the acting abbot, couldn't keep him under control," she said.

The woman said the monk became sexually fixated on her, giving her cause to believe he had entered her room and removed a pen, which he nervously presented to her and asked her to put back.

She had been allocated the one-bedroom "hermitage" lodge, 500m from a main building where eight other guests were staying.

The NOPS report noted that a group of Anglican women staying saw the affect the monk's intense staring and invasion of space was having on her.

The woman was told by another Cistercian Order member the monk had a bipolar condition and that he had been concerned about his behaviour for some time. The matter was brought to acting abbot, Brother Niko Verkley.

Before leaving, the woman demanded a meeting with all Cistercian Order members, including the bipolar monk. The monk denied entering her room and became incoherent, remarking: "You know sometimes I'm like a little monkey and I can't help that."

The report also stated that shortly after the meeting, the monk pointed to the penis of a lay person at the Abbey and said: "I've been thinking about that pen there."

The report writer said that, because of the sexualised reference to the pen, "whether due to the bipolar episode or not... it does give me concern that Brother ******** could be a threat to women at the Abbey."

The woman left the abbey after her meeting and rang Brother Niko the next day to demand an apology.

Brother Niko told her the monk's psychologist had rang to say he should not be confronted in his current state as he could become aggressive.

"I can hardly say to Brother ******** that he was sexually harassing *** because he is likely to kick me in the behind," he is quoted as saying.

Later in the report Brother Niko and others denied he ever suggested the monk could be aggressive.

The report concluded that the monk's sexual inappropriateness was likely a symptom of his bipolar condition. It recommended that the abbey ensure the safety of women staying there by sending the monk to the Safe Refuge facility as soon as his bipolar condition became apparent.

It said the Abbey had failed in its duty of care to the complainant by not doing so earlier than had happened.

However, the report also flagged unspecified comments made by the monk while in therapy that "warranted further inquiry".

"During a conversation with these therapists Brother ********** revealed certain information, which may or may not be correct, but if true would mean he could be a threat to some guests at the Abbey," it said.

When contacted by RNZ, NOPS director Virginia Noonan said follow-up inquiries and safety protocols recommended in the report had been completed at that time. She said the comments flagged as a concern related to a person who had been subsequently interviewed and that no complaint was made by that individual.

Ms Noonan refused to say whether other complaints about the Abbey had been received.

It is not clear whether the monk, who still lives at the monastery, was subject to further psychological assessment to determine the level of threat he posed.

The woman believed Bishop Drennan's response to her complaint had been lacking, given that it was obvious the Cistercian Order had previously failed to keep the monk under control.

"The recommendations of NOPS were reliant on the former Abbot being in charge of the situation, but the Abbot was very elderly," she said.

"The bishop should have stepped in to ensure the safety of women.

"In fact, all New Zealand bishops have a responsibility to ensure the Abbey is safe, because women from all around New Zealand visit and stay there."

At least one canon law expert has stated bishops have power to instruct religious order members who reside in their dioceses to leave.

Should any matter need to be addressed through a canonical criminal process, religious members in the diocese are also subject to a bishop's penal jurisdiction.

Ms Noonan told the woman the Order had advised her that women no longer stayed overnight at the hermitage lodge due to its distance from the main retreat building.

Bishop Drennan was approached through the Catholic Communications Office for comment.

Abuse complaint report secret

Meanwhile, clerical sexual abuse survivor Dr Christopher Longhurst has claimed a senior Palmerston North clergy molested him as a school boy and that a bishop covered it up.

Dr Longhurst had previously had two complaints of abuse by a Marist Brother and Marist priest in Hastings when he was at school, upheld after a NOPS investigation.

However, NOPS last month found no evidence that a senior clergyman in Palmerston North abused him in 1986. A further complaint that a bishop covered up the alleged claim was therefore rejected.

Dr Longhurst, a Wellington academic, was sent letters by both Cardinal John Dew and Palmerston North Vicar General Brian Walsh, informing him his complaints were not able to be upheld.

Afterwards he requested to see the investigation report and know who sat on the committee weighing up the evidence. Both requests were denied.

The Wellington-based academic has now demanded to see the report by the end of this week or he would take legal action under the Privacy Act. He suspects a report wasn't released to him as it may show a proper investigation didn't take place.

"By the absence of certain information, it would show that evidence wasn't produced and witnesses weren't contacted. The problem is - how can we know when there is no report," he said.

He believes Bishop Drennan would have been aware of the claim but regardless kept the accused clergy on in the diocese.

"It is inconceivable that the local bishop would not know about an abuse complaint against his clergy.

"The fact that Bishop Drennan would keep an accused in ministry betrays him, notwithstanding the civil principle of innocent until proven guilty. It suggests indifference in the least, putting the reputation of the institution over and above the protection and care of its people."

NOPS director Virginia Noonan refused to comment on why Dr Longhurst had been refused access to the report or why there wasn't transparency over who sat on the committee weighing complaints.

"A complainant can seek a review of the investigation process," she said.

Bishop Drennan, retired Bishop Peter Cullinane and the clergyman at the centre of the allegation were approached for comment through the Catholic Communications Office.

Royal Commission involvement

Bishop Drennan was general secretary of the New Zealand church's most powerful decision-making body, the NZ Catholic Bishops Conference. Information has emerged that suggests he also played a key role in shaping the composition of Te Rōpū Tautoko, body co-ordinating Church responses to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into historic abuse, of which he was a member.

On 20 March last year, Bishop Drennan told Auckland-based abuse survivor advocate Murray Heasley New Zealand bishops were "light years ahead of Australian bishops" on the issue of clerical sex abuse and didn't need laypeople to lead on the issue. They had been discussing the church's attitude to the Royal Commission of Inquiry.

During the exchange he said advice from high-profile Australian Catholic Dr Francis Sullivan, that bishops shouldn't exercise authority within any group appointed to liaise with an inquiry into historic abuse, was wrong as it didn't understand "the Kiwi way of doing things".

Dr Sullivan had been the chief executive of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, established by Australian bishops to liaise with the Australian government's own state abuse inquiry, which released its findings in December 2017. He was widely regarded for helping to keep the body independent and credible during the Australian inquiry process.

Bishop Drennan told Dr Heasley: "There's a hell of a lot I wouldn't want to follow with the Australian Bishops... What we were doing, even before day one, is light years ahead of what they were. The Church is quite different from the Church there, that sounds arrogant...

"Francis Sullivan said, and this is a point where we are different, the absolute last thing that you should ever let happen is the bishop would speak about this, that you can't have bishops fronting.

"You have this group that he led and it became very, very powerful and you know, 'everything is done through us'. Well, I understood what he was saying, but another person would say 'there go the bishops hiding behind someone else'."

Dr Sullivan's Truth, Justice and Healing Council was made up made up three clergy and nine high-profile Catholic lay professionals.

In contrast, when the New Zealand Catholic hierarchy appointed Te Rōpū Tautoko after the inquiry's terms of reference were extended to include religious institutions last year, it included six senior clergy, including Bishop Drennan, and just one lay person, its chairperson Catherine Fyfe, a human resources expert.

Dr Heasley said not having lay people leading Tautoko posed obvious dangers of conflicting interests and that the body lacked credibility.

"Drennan had obviously a major influence on the church's response to clerical sexual abuse, including it seems the make-up of Tautoko.

"Cardinal Dew, who is replacing him, has some serious explaining to do or this committee's credibility, already up the proverbial for excluding lay members, is totally shot."

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It follows an investigation into what the Roman Catholic Church says was "sexually inappropriate" behaviour with a woman. Source: 1 NEWS