23 July 2020: Paedophile Priest Supported, Befriended and Funded by the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne
The story of Father Ronald Pickering exemplifies the very worst of the Catholic Church’s handling of child sexual abuse allegations. Pickering was a prolific sexual offender for close to three decades from the early 1960s to early 1990s in various parishes around Melbourne.
Yet, despite several very clear allegations against him, he was maintained as a minister, befriended by the Archbishop and eventually given a full pastoral pension.
Pickering was born in the UK but was ordained as a priest in the Melbourne Archdiocese in 1957. He then ministered in Essendon, St Kilda, Warburton and Clayton before settling at the St James Church in Gardenvale from 1978 to 1993.
Pickering was known to have a great number of choir and altar boys with him most of the time. Survivors have reported that he attracted boys to his bedroom with offers of pocket money, television, cigarettes and alcohol. He regularly had boys stay overnight, often sharing his bed, and took boys with him on weekends away. Pickering is understood to have befriended many vulnerable children, mostly boys and often attempted to get them drunk before sexually abusing them. Numerous complaints about Pickering have been received by Broken Rites Australia.
The Catholic Church’s handling of Pickering is so problematic and reveals such a staggering example of misconduct by those in leadership, that the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse afforded Pickering’s story its own chapter in Case Study 35 on the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Missed opportunities to protect children
The Royal Commission looked at hundreds of letters and other documents relating to Pickering. These documents revealed that Melbourne’s Archbishop Little had at least two very clear warnings about Pickering’s criminal activities and that on both occasions he failed to protect the children with whom Pickering came in contact.
As early as 1978, Sister Marie Therese Harold met in person with Archbishop Little to express her suspicion that Pickering was sexually abusing boys. She conveyed concerns that boys were constantly in the presbytery and in Pickering’s bedroom and that there were rumours of Pickering sexually abusing the boys. Archbishop Little’s file note of the meeting states ‘There is always a coterie of males hanging about the presbytery. It would not be a good place into which to place first appointments or young priests.’ Archbishop Little told Sister Harold that he would investigate, yet there is no evidence that this ever occurred. The Royal Commission was satisfied that Archbishop Little did not confront Pickering and took no action to see if the allegations were true or to prevent it happened in future.
Eight years later another very credible allegation was made. In January 1986, an adolescent boy told his GP, Doctor Barker, that Pickering had touched his genitals on two occasions. Dr Barker immediately rang the office of the Archdiocese and spoke with the Vicar General Monsignor Connors, who passed on the allegation to Archbishop Little. This time the Archbishop at least met with Pickering. Archbishop Little’s file note of the meeting with Pickering states that Pickering admitted giving alcohol to children and on occasions being ‘imprudent’ but denied any ‘further activities’. Archbishop Little recorded that he told Pickering ‘of the possibility of legal action and asked that he take such action that would do least harm to the Church should that possibility take place’.
Two weeks later Pickering took sudden, extended leave to England. His parishioners were told this was for health reasons. There is no evidence that the boy against whom Pickering offended was offered any support. Nor were the allegations of criminal activity passed on to police. Three months later Pickering returned to his parish where he continued to offend for a further seven years.
Euphemisms and ‘brotherhood’ obscured criminal behaviour
Giving evidence to the Royal Commission, Monsignor Connors agreed that euphemisms such as ‘imprudent behaviour’ were generally used and understood to refer to sexual misconduct against children. Such indirect and guarded language peppers the Church’s documents relating to Pickering.
In 1988 Pickering complained in a letter to Archbishop Little that he ‘had had a belly full of accusations’, including that he was ‘surrounded by an aroma of homosexuality’ and that he wished for early retirement. In responding, Archbishop Little offered to move Pickering to a new parish to avoid the ambiguously worded ‘particular events’ currently upsetting Pickering. Archbishop Little went on to say he only wished to help Pickering to ‘live joyfully the priesthood with which [he had] been gifted’ and signed off as a ‘life-long friend’.
In 1993 Pickering again requested an early retirement. This time Archbishop Little reluctantly granted his request, reminiscing in his letter to Pickering about their first meeting in 1953 and stating that for Pickering he had ‘always felt a special brotherly affection and concern over the years’. By this time Archbishop Little had known of allegations of Pickering sexually offending against children for fifteen years.
Hidden pension payments
Shortly after the request for retirement, in May 1993 Pickering abruptly left Australia for the UK. It is unclear whether this was in response to investigations by police or hints of legal action by victims. However, in evidence given to the Royal Commission it was thought that ‘the police were on his tail’. Pickering never returned to Australia.
A few months later, on 23 December 1993, the Church received a letter of demand relating to a claim of sexual abuse by Pickering. Coincidentally, on the very same day, the Curia finally decided to withdraw Pickering’s religious faculties.
Despite having presumably fled the country to avoid criminal justice and having had his priestly faculties withdrawn, Pickering requested that he be paid a priest’s pension, a request that Archbishop Little approved. When some priests expressed surprise that he was eligible for payments from the Priests’ Retirement Foundation, Pickering suggested that a special, confidential fund be established to ‘circumvent scandal and understandable indignation’. From this secret fund, Pickering was paid a pension, equal to that of a ‘pastor emeritus’ until 2002.
Highest Catholic authority in Victoria failed children
Archbishop Little should have been responsible to for suspending Pickering, reporting him to the police, alerting families and investigating what support his victims required. Instead he ignored initial allegations and allowed Pickering extended leave or offered him a new parish when the heat of accusations got too much. He repeatedly professed his friendship and admiration for Pickering and allowed this to blind him to Pickering’s on-going criminal behaviour. In letters and file notes he obscured the nature of allegations against Pickering behind euphemisms. He failed to pass on allegations of criminal behaviour to the police. He enabled Pickering to covertly receive a full pastoral pension even after Pickering escaped to the UK to avoid legal action for sexual assault of a boy. At each stage of the Pickering story, Archbishop Little prioritised the protection of the Church from scandal and legal action.
We continue to act for several clients who are survivors of sexual assault by Father Pickering. We aim to hold the Catholic Archdiocese to account for its tragic failure to protect children from a known paedophile in the priesthood.
By Elke Nicholson,
Solicitor at Angela Sdrinis Legal