Rejected: Newcastle woman Anthea Halpin whose failed attempts to meet with Archbishop Philip Wilson in 2008 have changed history. Picture: Simone De Peak.
IT’S one of the most spectacular own goals in Catholic Church history – how Archbishop Philip Wilson’s refusal to meet with a Newcastle child sex victim in 2008 laid the groundwork for his conviction for concealing a crime, a special commission of inquiry and a royal commission.
It’s the extraordinary story of Anthea Halpin, notorious paedophile priest Denis McAlinden, the face-to-face apology from Wilson that never came and the documents that have helped change history.
It’s also the remarkable story of Maitland-Newcastle diocese child protection officer Helen Keevers’ key role in the Wilson case and her sudden death days before his conviction. Her memorial service was held only hours after Tuesday’s landmark decision that Wilson concealed the crimes of child sex offender priest Jim Fletcher.
For the first time the Newcastle Herald can reveal how Wilson’s refusal to meet with Mrs Halpin in 2008 – in part because she used “totally inappropriate” obscenities in some emails to him and wanted a face-to-face apology – launched a series of events directly challenging the Vatican.
I have remembered you in my prayers constantly and have offered mass for you, asking the Lord to give you a deep sense of peace and healing.
Archbishop Philip Wilson in 2008 to child sex victim Anthea Halpin
Mrs Halpin was eight when McAlinden first sexually abused her and 11 or 12 when it ended. The abuse occurred on “many occasions”, including once during confession, she said in a statement to the then Father Philip Wilson on October 13, 1995.
He was appointed notary by the then Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Leo Clarke and tasked with obtaining two statements from McAlinden child sex victims to use in a secret defrocking attempt against him.
Bishop Clarke assured McAlinden – an Irish-born priest sent to Australia in 1949, aged 26 – that “Your good name will be protected by the confidential nature of this process”.
By 1995 the Australian Catholic Church had nearly five decades of child sex allegations against McAlinden, with the first negative reports only weeks after he arrived in the Hunter.
“Given his prolific offending, it is readily conceivable that the total number of McAlinden’s victims is more than 100,” a commission of inquiry later found. He died, aged 82, in a Western Australian church-run nursing home in 2005 without ever being convicted of a crime.
In 2007 Mrs Halpin contacted the Herald after articles naming McAlinden as a serial church child sex offender who left a trail of destruction across Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, the Philippines and Ireland.
The articles, which named Wilson as the notary in the secret defrocking case, led to an historic apology from the then Maitland-Newcastle Bishop Michael Malone to child sexual abuse victims. He also personally apologised to Mrs Halpin.
In 2008 Mrs Halpin, supported by Helen Keevers and survivor advocate Peter Gogarty, first contacted Wilson, by then Archbishop of Adelaide, seeking a meeting and an apology for his role in the McAlinden secret defrocking attempt.
Wilson said no.
In a letter to Mrs Halpin on November 20, 2008 he said his involvement “ended at the moment that I handed the information to the bishop”.
“However, I would not want you to think I do not appreciate your situation,” Wilson wrote.
“Listening to your story (in 1995) has been one of the saddest experiences of my life. My heart on that day was filled with anger at what you recounted, and deep feelings of compassion for you.
“My heart is still full of the same compassion today. I have remembered you in my prayers constantly and have offered mass for you, asking the Lord to give you a deep sense of peace and healing.”
Her anger does not excuse or justify the use of such language in formal communications. I do not propose to meet with Mrs Halpin.
Archbishop Philip Wilson to Helen Keevers
Wilson was not so compassionate in a letter to Mrs Keevers rejecting a meeting with Mrs Halpin, despite the archbishop acknowledging a meeting was “still very important” to her. He rejected suggestions he had failed to offer Mrs Halpin any support after taking the statement from her in 1995.
“There is nothing for which I should apologise to Mrs Halpin,” he wrote to Mrs Keevers.
He complained that “the hostile, threatening and obscene language which she has used from time to time has been totally inappropriate”.
“Her anger does not excuse or justify the use of such language in formal communications. I do not propose to meet with Mrs Halpin. Her issues should be directed to the Maitland diocese and not to me.”
Mrs Halpin did not back down. In a letter to Wilson on January 5, 2009 she asked the archbishop: “What planet do you live on?”
What planet do you live on? How come it was okay for Denis McAlinden to do the things he did to me as a little girl, but me getting angry about it now is unacceptable?
Anthea Halpin to Archbishop Philip Wilson
“How come it was okay for Denis McAlinden to do the things he did to me as a little girl, but me getting angry about it now is unacceptable?” she wrote.
“I wonder how polite you would be if the same things happened to you. Has no one explained to you the rage that is felt by people who have been abused as I have?
“I don’t believe your words of compassion. I need to see your face as you say those words to me. I need to know you are truly sorry for what happened to me. I also need to know that you now understand that the way you treated me when I came forward with my story was wrong.”
They didn’t meet.
A commission of inquiry noted Helen Keevers gave documents from the diocese’s McAlinden file to Mrs Halpin in 2009 with Bishop Malone’s consent. They included a copy of her statement to Wilson, letters from Bishops Clarke and Malone about the attempted secret defrocking, a letter from McAlinden to Bishop Malone and a document confirming the “veracity” of Mrs Halpin’s statement, which was consistent with “many reports of Father McAlinden’s behaviour from other people”.
The documents were handed over after the diocese exhausted attempts to secure a meeting between Wilson and Mrs Halpin.
“The least we could do was give her her documents,” Mrs Keevers said at the time.
In late 2009 Mrs Halpin contacted me about the documents and gave me copies over a cup of tea.
In April, 2010 I gave the documents to a Strikeforce Georgiana detective. For the rest of 2010 NSW Police grappled with a prospect less than a handful of police jurisdictions in the world had ever considered – charging not the perpetrators of child sexual abuse but those who concealed their crimes.
Handing Mrs Halpin’s documents to police “became the catalyst for the Strike Force Lantle investigation”, NSW Special Commission of Inquiry commissioner Margaret Cunneen, SC, said in her final report in 2014.
The commission was established on November 9, 2012, the day after Hunter chief inspector Peter Fox controversially criticised police on the ABC’s Lateline program and accused them of conducting a “sham” Strikeforce Lantle investigation into the McAlinden cover-up. Ms Cunneen rejected that allegation.
Three days after the then NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell established the Cunneen inquiry, the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard established a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. She acknowledged the Hunter region’s crucial role in that decision, and a Herald campaign for a royal commission that “got into my head”.
Strikeforce Lantle Detective Sergeant Jeff Little charged Wilson in March, 2015 with concealing the crimes of Jim Fletcher. Wilson was convicted on Tuesday and will be sentenced in June. The decision came three weeks after Cardinal George Pell was committed to stand trial on sex charges, and five months after the royal commission released a final report with recommendations challenging the Vatican and many of its core tenets.
“Wilson should have had that cuppa with me,” Mrs Halpin said.