The Archbishop of Adelaide has agreed the Catholic church’s response to sexual abuse claims at a special school should have begun about a decade earlier than it did.
Archbishop Philip Wilson told the royal commission he would have expected his predecessor to have put in place processes in 1993 which he himself instigated after learning of the abuse in late 2001.
“If the matter was known it should have been dealt with in all the formal ways that are required,” he told the commission on Monday.
It is investigating Adelaide’s St Ann’s Special School and its bus driver Brian Perkins, who sexually abused intellectually disabled children between 1986 and 1991.
Archbishop Wilson was asked how he would deal with the allegations he was confronted with in late 2001.
“Please God, it will never happen again, but I would hope that if it did that we would have learnt by experience now of how to handle these situations with the best possible outcome for the families and victims.”
The commission has been told the principal and a Catholic Education Office (CEO) employee knew of the claims in 1991, while Archbishop Leonard Faulkner said he was informally told in 1993 about the arrest and charging of Perkins.
Archbishop Wilson said he first learnt of the claims in late 2001, when Archbishop Faulkner told him the CEO had received a complaint from parents saying children had been molested by a bus driver at St Ann’s.
The witness said he was appalled and horrified and took immediate steps to put the appropriate responses and processes in place.
He agreed with counsel assisting, Sophie David, that families of students, many of whom had limited verbal skills, could have been told of the claims as early as 1991 instead of 2002.
“And that way they would’ve been spared 10 years of not knowing or not having an explanation for behaviours of their children?” she asked.
“I agree with that.”
“If the structures that were in place in 1991 had worked, that would have been ventilated 10 years earlier than it was?” she asked.
“That’s right,” replied the Archbishop.
He said a “group” rather than an individualised approach was set up, with the church making “gift payments” totalling $2.3 million to 28 families in 2003.
Unknown to the families, they were categorised and the Archbishop decided payments of $100,000 would apply to children with substantiated evidence of abuse.
Payments of $75,000 would go to those who had been in Perkins’ unsupervised care and for whom there was a high probability of abuse, and $50,000 for those who had less unsupervised contact.
“For those students who were unlikely to have been abused, pastoral support would be offered but not a monetary gift,” the Archbishop said.
In hindsight, he said the church could have improved the way they engaged with families, consulted them about the processes and made the payment transactions much simpler.
Archbishop Wilson was the final witness at the Adelaide hearing.