A "celibate" priest helps Cardinal George Pell's lawyers, then Pell goes missing

By a Broken Rites researcher (article updated 18 February 2016)

Australia's national child-abuse Royal Commission has learned how George Pell recruited supporters from among suburban priests when he began his rise to power in Melbourne in the 1980s and 1990s. Broken Rites understands that Pell was welcomed particularly by conservative (as distinct from moderate-minded) priests. One of these traditionalist supporters, Father John Walshe, has given evidence to the Royal Commission on behalf of Cardinal Pell's lawyers. This Broken Rites article is an analysis of Walshe's evidence. Father Walshe said he supports the tradition of "celibacy" for Catholic priests. A week after his evidence, it was revealed that the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese has apologised to a former student who says he was sexually abused (at the age of 18) by Father Walshe. Meanwhile, Cardinal Pell is refusing to re-visit Australia to appear in person at the Royal Commission.

The matter of the 18-year-old student is reported towards the end of this article but, first, here is some background about George Pell and John Walshe.

Cardinal George Pell received several mentions in Father Walshe's evidence. Originally a priest in the Ballarat diocese (which covered the western half of Victoria), George Pell moved to Melbourne in 1985 to become the head of the Melbourne seminary (Corpus Christi College, then based at Melbourne's Clayton), which trained priests for Victoria and Tasmania. In 1987 he was appointed as one of Melbourne's four regional auxiliary bishops under the authority of Archbishop Frank Little (Bishop Pell's region was Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs). This is when he became acquainted with allies such as Father John Walshe.

At this stage, Pell was no more famous nationally than any of Australia's forty or so other Catholic bishops. But he was working on it.

Father John Walshe and Bishop George Pell

In December 2015, the Royal Commission held a public hearing (in Melbourne) in its Case Study 35 (about sexual-abuse in the Melbourne Catholic archdiocese, which covers the metropolitan area) and also in Case Study 28 (about the Ballarat diocese which covers western Victoria). Father John Thomas Walshe offered to give evidence relating to George Pell.

Broken Rites has studied the official transcript of Fr Walshe's evidence.

Fr Walsh gave the Royal Commission a copy of his curriculum vitae. Born in Melbourne in 1958, Walshe attended school at St James Catholic Primary School Gardenvale (1963-1967) and Christian Brothers College St Kilda (1968-1975). He began studying for the priesthood at Melbourne's Corpus Christi seminary in 1976, aged 18, and was ordained as a priest in Melbourne by Archbishop Frank Little on 14 August 1982. [Father George Pell then was still based in Ballarat]

Father Walshe's early appointments as an assistant priest in the Melbourne archdiocese included:

  • Parish of St Mary of the Angels, GEELONG (1982-1983);
  • Parish of St Thomas the Apostle, BLACKBURN (1983-1986);
  • St Jude's, SCORESBY (1986-1988); and
  • St Gerard's, NORTH DANDENONG (1988-1992).

Walshe told the Royal Commission that, while in his early parishes in the mid-1980s, he probably met George Pell socially, perhaps while re-visiting the seminary where Pell was the new rector. By 1988, he had became better acquainted with Pell as the new regional bishop for Walshe's area.

In answer to a question, Walshe told the Commission:

"When I was in the Parish of St Gerard in North Dandenong, Bishop Pell was our Regional Bishop...  He had the practice of inviting priests of his zone, his area, to dinners, so to get to know them because he wasn't a priest of Melbourne and he sort of took every opportunity to get to know the clergy, so I came to know him better through then."

Father Walshe, who is interested in church history, helped Cardinal Pell's research concerning some worldwide church matters, the Commission was told.

As an auxiliary bishop, George Pell was based at the Mentone parish (in Melbourne's outer south-east). In 1992, Walshe was appointed as an assistant priest at Bishop Pell's parish. Bishop Pell evidently played a role in making this appointment, Walsh told the Commission.

At Mentone, Walshe lived in the bishop's house with Pell, while two other priests lived in Mentone's normal presbytery (both houses are located at 10 Rogers Street, Mentone, with the bishop's house situated behind the presbytery). In 1995, Walshe was promoted to the rank of Dean of the Mentone parish, and he has remained in charge of that parish since then. This parish includes two churches: St Patrick's in Mentone and St John Vianney's in Parkdale.

In 1996, Pell managed to get himself appointed by the Vatican as the archbishop of Melbourne, replacing Archbishop Frank Little. Pell then left Mentone and became based at St Patrick's Cathedral, near central Melbourne. He was the archbishop of Melbourne until 2001.

[Broken Rites has been told that, after becoming the Archbishop of Melbourne, Pell continued to visit the Mentone parish, where he held meetings and social occasions in his former residence. These get-togethers at Mentone were attended by some of the priests in the pro-Pell wing of the Melbourne clergy. Some of these supporters also assisted Archbishop Pell at Masses and ceremonies in Pell's Melbourne cathedral.]

When Pell left Melbourne to become the archbishop of Sydney in 2001, Fr John Walshe attended the Sydney ceremony, according to Walshe's evidence at the Royal Commission.

Although he never rose above the rank of Parish Priest, John Walshe continued to be active in church affairs. For example, at the Royal Commission, he was questioned about some of his other activities in church circles.  He agreed that he is an office bearer in the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, presently the national chairman. [This is a group of conservative priests, whereas progressively-minded priests tend to be in a different national organisation.]

In response to another question, Walshe agreed that he has been associated with a Catholic organisation called "Courage", which minsters to homosexual people. Walshe said he has "helped" some of the people who come to the "Courage" organisation. It is not clear what sort of "help" this was.

[According to church websites, Fr John Walshe was among a number of priests who assisted Archbishop Pell and later Archbishop Denis Hart, in ceremonies and services at Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral. According to the church websites, others who assisted in cathedral ceremonies included Fr Charles Portelli and Fr Shane Hoctor. In 1999, Fr Walshe and others assisted Pell in conducting a traditional Latin Mass.]

Why Walshe contacted the Royal Commission

Fr Walshe told the Royal Commission that he visited Cardinal Pell in Rome on 17 November 2015. (This was seven days before the beginning of the Royal Commission's four-weeks public hearing public in Melbourne.) He had dinner with Cardinal Pell and Pell's private secretary (Father Mark Withoos, a Melbourne priest who was ordained by Archbishop Pell in 2000).

According to Fr Walshe, Cardinal Pell was obviously worried about his forthcoming appearance at the Royal Commission where he was to be asked questions about the church's handling of child sexual abuse allegations in Ballarat and Melbourne. Pell was expected to be asked about his time as an adviser to former Ballarat bishop Ronald Mulkearns regarding the movements of priests in the diocese, such as paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale.

One of Gerald Ridsdale's victims was his nephew David Ridsdale who told Pell in a phone call in February 1993 that Father Ridsdale had sexually abused him. According to David Ridsdale's sworn evidence, Pell replied to David in 1993: "I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet". In statements to the media, Cardinal Pell denies saying this, but he is yet to state his denial officially under oath in the Commission's witness box in the Melbourne-Ballarat public hearing. David Ridsdale has told the Commission that his teenage development (including his sexuality) was disrupted by Father Gerald Ridsdale's abuse and by the church's cover-up.

On November 19 (two days after dining with Pell in Rome), Walshe arrived home in Melbourne. A couple of days after this, he received a phone call from Michael Casey (a personal assistant to Pell), who asked if Walshe would submit a written statement to the Royal Commission supporting Pell version of David Ridsdale's 1993 phone call and thus undermining David's evidence about being silenced. Walshe agreed to do this.

About December 2 or 3 in 2015 (during the second week of the Royal Commission's four-weeks public hearing) Walshe was contacted by a member of Pell's legal team. After phone discussions and an exchange of emails between Walshe and this lawyer, the lawyer drafted the final version of Father Walshe's written statement.

The final statement was delivered to Father Walshe by courier and he signed it on 5 December 2015. Walshe told the Commission: "It was all formatted for me and then I signed it and had it witnessed."

This was half way through the Royal Commission's four-weeks Melbourne hearing (and 11 days before Pell was due to give evidence in person in Melbourne).

Fr Walshe's submission reached the Commission on Sunday 6 December, a day before the Commission was due to focus on Ballarat (rather than Melbourne) matters (including survivor David Ridsdale's claim that Cardinal Pell wanted to silence him in 1993).

After Father Walshe's letter reached the Royal Commission, the chairman (Justice Peter McClellan immediately issued a summons for all the notes and emails which Pell's lawyers possessed regarding Father Walshe's submission.

The Royal Commission scheduled Fr Walshe to appear in the witness box on December 15, the day before Pell's scheduled appearance.

Problems in Walshe's statement

Walshe's version of the 1993 David Ridsdale phone call failed to impress the Royal Commission.

The counsel assisting the commission, Angus Stewart, SC, said that Cardinal Pell's legal team had inserted a number of details into Father Walshe's written statement. These additions, Mr Stewart said, included:

  • the time of day when the phone call occurred;
  • Father Walshe's subsequent conversation with Bishop Pell about the phone call, and
  • which part of the bishop's house they were in when Pell returned from taking the call.

When questioned, Walshe admitted to the Commission that some of his knowledge of the events of 1993 came from watching a television program, "60 Minutes", on the Nine Network in 2002.

Walshe said he discussed the "60 Minutes" program with some of his colleagues who, he said, would have included Father Charles Portelli and Father Anthony Girolami.

Father Walshe and "celibacy"

Towards the end of his evidence, Fr Walshe was questioned about the Catholic Church's policy of advertising its priests as "celibate".

He said he strongly supports "celibacy" and his remarks about it included the following:

"I believe that it's something that is a gift if people live it properly, and I believe that it's something that we've received from the Lord, and there's a long tradition of it...

"Ultimately the purpose of celibacy is supernatural and it will never be understood in human terms."

George Pell goes missing

When Fr John Walshe entered the Royal Commission witness box (on 15 December 2015), he intended helping Cardinal George Pell who was originally scheduled to step into the same witness box on the next day, December 16. But, in mid-December, Pell's lawyer informed the Royal Commission that Pell does not want to visit Australia.

  • To see more about Pell's wish to avoid appearing in Australia, click HERE.

An allegation against Fr John Walshe
concerning an 18-year-old student

On 23 December 2015 (seven days after Father John Walshe's evidence to the Royal Commission), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported (in its evening news bulletins) that Fr John Walshe was himself the subject of a sexual complaint.

In 2012, the complainant, John Roach, received a written apology after the Melbourne Catholic Archdiocese accepted that Mr Roach had been sexually abused by Father John Walshe in 1982 when John Roach was a student, aged 18.

Mr Roach, who now lives in the United States, told the ABC that he felt compelled to speak publicly after seeing video coverage of Father Walshe, giving evidence on 15-16 December 2015 at the Royal Commission

In 1982 Mr Roach was an 18-year-old first-year student at Melbourne's Corpus Christie Catholic seminary in Clayton, beginning his studies for the priesthood, when the incident took place. John Walshe, who was then in his mid-twenties (born in 1958), was at the end of his seminary studies and was facing his future career as a priest. Father Walshe was ordained as a priest in Melbourne by Archbishop Frank Little on 14 August 1982.

Mr Roach said: "One night he invited me up to his room, which was not uncommon.
We had a fair bit of port to drink — I was very unfamiliar with drinking — and I woke up in his bed and he was abusing me.

"I left as quickly as I could, I was very confused, I didn't know what to do, what to think."

Mr Roach said there were two further encounters the following year which included an element of consent.

Mr Roach left the seminary in 1983, but two years later decided to return and had a meeting with the new rector, Dr George Pell.

Mr Roach told the ABC:

"In the course of the interview, he [Dr George Pell] asked me why did I leave in the first place and I told him one of the principal reasons I left in the first place was that I had been abused by a priest." .

"He said, 'I have got to ask you this, can you name the priest?' and I said 'sure, he is Father John Walshe', and he went, 'OK'."

Despite receiving this information, Pell accepted Fr John Walshe's appointment as Pell's assistant priest at the Mentone parish in 1992, where Pell was then residing as one of Melbourne's auxiliary bishops.

In 2012, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, gave a written apology to Mr Roach for the "wrongs and hurt" he suffered at the hands of Father Walshe. Mr Roach was offered the maximum payment allowed under the church's Melbourne compensation system. Father Walshe was allowed to continue running the Mentone-Parkdale parish.

In his final report on the complaint, the Melbourne archdiocese's complaints officer (Peter O'Callaghan QC) said he was satisfied that Mr Roach had been sexually abused.

Mr O' Callaghan defined sexual abuse as "conduct of a sexual nature that is inconsistent with the public vows, integrity of the ministerial relationship, duties or professional responsibilities of church personnel."

Although Mr O'Callaghan made no finding about which man's version of events should be believed, the final report said, "there is no doubt that sexual abuse occurred" because "a reasonable inference to be drawn is that J [the priest] had a degree of influence and control over the Seminarian". The finding was not based on any legal interpretation of sexual abuse.

Father Walshe says that his conduct with the 18-year-old student was "consensual conduct" with "an adult".

In December 2015, the ABC contacted Father Walshe, seeking a comment. On 22 December 2015, Father Walshe issued the following statement to the ABC (as shown on the ABC website):

"In 1982 I was a sexually naïve and emotionally vulnerable young man. For a short time, as a young adult, I formed an emotional attachment to another young adult, and engaged in consensual conduct with that person.

"My conduct was contrary to my religious beliefs. However, it by no means constituted any form of abuse.

"I must emphasis that we were both adults and our conduct, was completely consensual.

"Following those events, I underwent extensive counselling to deal with the internal conflicts I faced. My conduct since that time has been exemplary.

"I have worked tirelessly as parish priest and have enjoyed the complete confidence of three Archbishops over the past three decades.

"I have devoted my life to the Church and I have worked tirelessly within my Parish to improve the lives of my Community. I look forward to continuing that work in the future.
- Fr John Walshe, 22 December 2015"

On 24 December 2015 (the day after the ABC's story about Mr John Roach), Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart issued a statement through his vicar-general, Monsignor Greg Bennet.

Monsignor Bennet said:

"Father Walshe has admitted that he engaged in consensual conduct contrary to his religious beliefs and acknowledged that he then undertook extensive counselling.

"Mr O'Callaghan strongly recommended to Archbishop Hart that Father Walshe not be withdrawn from public ministry and this recommendation was accepted by Archbishop Hart.

"Later Mr Roach applied for and was awarded compensation through the Melbourne Response's Compensation Panel."

Monsignor Bennet also stated:

"Father Walshe has spoken to his parishioners and apologised for any hurt or disappointment his behaviour has caused.

"We are aware that these revelations are upsetting for all concerned."

Parishioners of Mentone-Parkdale held a meeting on 6 January 2016, attended by 130 people at short notice, to discuss getting Fr John Walshe replaced as the parish priest

On Tuesday morning 2 February 2016, a group of about 20 parents from Fr Walshe's parish withdrew their children from the parish's weekly Mass at the Mentone church - as a sign of protest against Fr Walshe being their parish priest (and thereby being the owner of their school). These parents then delivered their children to school later in the morning.

Victoria's Catholic Education executive director Stephen Elder told The Age newspaper that parents (and presumably parishioners) could not influence the position of a parish priest. He said:

"The parish priest has ownership of Catholic schools in Victoria and he delegates the operation of that school to the principal."

Regarding Mr Elder's statement about Fr Walshe being the "owner" of the parish schools, a former seminary student (from the same era as Walshe) has emailed Broken Rites, saying:

"If Walshe 'owns' the school, should he have to pass a 'fit-and-proper-person' test for his school to receive government funding or for the government to be satisfied that he meets the standards required to run a registered school?"