The church helped Father Peter Chalk to evade the police

By a Broken Rites researcher

Catholic Church authorities helped an Australian priest, Father Peter Chalk, to stay overseas, out of the reach of Australian police. The church eventually gave a written apology to some of Chalk's Melbourne victims.

Former male members of Father Chalk's youth group in Melbourne (including children as young as 12 years) had been complaining to the church since 1987 about sexual abuse. But Father Chalk was allowed to stay in the priesthood, working in a senior role for the church in Japan.

Frustrated by the church's evasion of the allegations for seven years from 1987, some of the Melbourne victims spoke to the police in Australia in 1994. But the church allowed Chalk quietly to resign. He then stayed in Japan as a teacher, adopting Japanese citizenship and a Japanese surname.

This helped him to evade the Australian police. Chalk's former colleagues and superiors knew about his new life in Japan, but they refrained from helping the Australian police to find him.

Apology from the church

In the late 1990s, after the police investigation stalled, four former members of Chalk's Melbourne youth group complained to the Melbourne archdiocese's commissioner into sexual abuse, Peter O'Callaghan QC, who then held an inquiry.

A spokesman for the Melbourne archdiocese has told The Australian newspaper (quoted in its edition of 20 September 2010) that:

  • Mr O'Callaghan upheld the complaints.
  • The then-archbishop of Melbourne signed a written apology which was sent to three of the complainants.
  • A fourth complainant later received an official apology from the next Archbishop of Melbourne (Denis Hart).

Background in Australia

Father Peter Chalk (born in Australia) was a priest in a Catholic religious order called the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (or MSC). This order, which is sometimes known as the "Sacred Heart Fathers", operates some parishes and schools in Australia. The order provides opportunities for its Australian priests to travel overseas. At any one time, a significant proportion of the order's Australian priests are serving in Asia. For example, for many years, the MSC order's Australian province has conducted activities in Japan.

According to the annual editions of the Australian Catholic Directory, in the 1970s Father Peter Chalk was listed as residing (with about seven other MSC priests) in the "Sacred Heart Monastery", which the order then operated at Croydon in Melbourne's east. This monastery was involved in the training of priests for the MSC order.

During the late 1970s, Chalk also ministered at a nearby parish (St Anne's), conducted by the MSC order, serving the suburbs of Park Orchards and Warrandyte. As part of his role in that parish, Father Peter Chalk conducted a youth group, which included young teenagers as young as 12 or 13.

About 1980, Father Peter Chalk was listed as an assistant priest at another MSC parish — St John the Apostle, Kippax, in Canberra. While in Canberra, he undertook a course of Japanese studies.

In 1981, Chalk was listed in the Australian Catholic Directory as being on the staff of the Yarra Theological Union (an ecclesiastical college) in Box Hill, Melbourne.

Off to Japan

In the early 1980s, the Australian MSC office arranged for Peter Chalk to work in its overseas operations in Japan. His name was deleted from the 1983 Australian Catholic Directory and he never again appeared in this directory, although this directory normally contains a list of Australian MSC priests who are overseas.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, some persons who had encountered Father Peter Chalk in Australia in the 1970s (either as a member of a parish youth group or as a young trainee for the priesthood) spoke to Chalk's superiors and colleagues about those encounters.

For example, one former youth-club member (Peter) says that in the 1970s, when he was aged 12 onwards, he encountered Father Peter Chalk in youth activities. He says that in 1987, when he was in his mid-twenties, he reported his Chalk experiences to the new parish priest in charge of Melbourne's Park Orchards parish, Father Frederick Van Gestel.

Fred Van Gestel, who has since left the priesthood, passed Peter's report on to MSC superiors, including Father James Fallon. Fallon was then one of the most senior priests in the MSC order's Australian province; and he is believed to have been a friend of Chalk.

However, Chalk was allowed to continue as a priest in the MSC order.

In 1994, after years of inaction by the MSC order, the above-mentioned Peter (then aged about 30) contacted the police in Melbourne and made a sworn, signed statement about his encounters with Chalk. The Melbourne police then interviewed (and obtained written statements from) other persons who had been youngsters in Chalk's parish.

The complainants wanted Chalk to return to Australia to face the allegations but this would have created difficulties for Chalk and the MSC order.

A new surname

In 1995, with the Australian police interested in him, Chalk and the MSC order went into damage control. The order allowed Chalk to "resign" from the order. He then stayed on in Japan as a lay person, establishing a new career for himself teaching English to Japanese high-school students.

He changed his surname to a Japanese one ("Peter Shiraishi") and adopted Japanese citizenship.

A consequence of this was that, if Chalk re-entered Australia using his Japanese identity, Australian police would not notice.

Since 1995, if anyone asked the MSC order about Peter Chalk, the order has claimed that it "does not know where Chalk is now or what he is doing".

Chalk's new identity was convenient for the MSC order because, if more reports surfaced about Chalk's Melbourne activities in the 1970s, the order could claim to be no longer responsible for him.

Because Chalk was now apparently hard to find, the Melbourne police investigation in the 1990s stayed "on hold". However, the Melbourne police still possess a file concerning their investigation of Peter Chalk.

In the late 1990s, in the absence of police action, the only option available for Chalk's Melbourne victims was to have their complaints investigated (and subsequently upheld) by the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese's commissioner on sexual abuse, Mr Peter O'Callaghan, QC. The written apology, which each victim received from the archbishop of Melbourne, said that the archdiocese was apologising for the harm done to each one by Father Peter Chalk.

Police file closed

Although the MSC order has claimed to "not know" Chalk's whereabouts, it apparently was still able to receive information about him. In September 2010, in response to a query from The Australian newspaper, the MSC Australian headquarters issued a media release to this newspaper, stating that Peter Chalk had recently died in Japan (the MSC statement is quoted in The Australian printed edition on 28 September 2010 but is not on the newspaper's website).

Broken Rites has not sighted any documentation about this death. Perhaps Australian police should seek details of the death from the authorities in Japan.

If Chalk is really dead, then this means that the police file will be automatically closed, because the police cannot charge a person who no longer exits. Thus, Peter Chalk has missed an opportunity to attempt to clear his name.

The MSC order still needs to explain: why it recruited Peter Chalk in the first place (about 40 years ago); why it put young people in danger while they were in Chalk's custody; why it harboured him for so many years; and why it failed to to help the police investigation.

And the Melbourne archdiocese, which gave a written apology to some of Chalk's victims, has some explaining to do about its role in the Chalk affair. The Melbourne archdiocese was outsourcing the staffing of its Park Orchards and Warrandyte parish to the MSC order.

It is interesting to note that the MSC order has a connection with the Catholic Church's Australia-wide management of the church's sex-abuse problems. In 2007 the head of the MSC order in Australia was appointed as the co-chair of the church's National Committee for Professional Standards — the body which superintends the handling of church sex-abuse complaints in Australia through the church's controversial "Towards Healing" scheme.

The handling of the Chalk affair (during the past 40 years) does not inspire confidence in the Catholic Church's management of the church's sex-abuse crisis. 

The Victoria Police should investigate exactly how the MSC order succeeded in concealing Chalk's crimes.