Statement of acknowledgement and apology from Bill Wright, Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle

In my five years as Bishop of the Diocese, this is the second commission of inquiry before which I have appeared.  There is a very considerable difference in scope between the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (‘Royal Commission’) and the Special Commission of Inquiry into matters relating to the police investigation of certain child sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

Nevertheless there are haunting similarities for me, inasmuch as I am once again called upon to bear witness to a terrible and shameful chapter in the history of this Diocese. I am called to account for how the Diocese meets its obligations to provide support to those who remain affected today by their abuse, and called to demonstrate how we are committed to ensuring that what happened in the past cannot happen again today.

To bear witness to this sad and terrible history I must first acknowledge the facts as I know them.  I acknowledge that:

  • Ryan is a priest incardinated to the Diocese who committed multiple acts of sexual abuse against innocent boys beginning as early as 1972;
  • Ryan was a sexual predator who used his status as a priest and the power that gave him to gain access to boys, to convince their parents and other responsible adults that he was safe, and to conceal his abuse;
  • As early as 1974 deceased priest Mons. Cotter was told something of Ryan’s abusing and he abjectly failed to do anything meaningful to protect the children who should have been his primary concern;
  • In 1975, Mons. Cotter responded to a further report and promptly removed Ryan from ministry and sent him for treatment, but these acts were vitiated by subsequent failures to monitor or check whether Ryan had received any meaningful treatment;
  • There is some evidence that deceased priest Vincent Casey was told something of Ryan’s prior abusing. There is also evidence suggesting that Bishop Leo Clarke may have known of Ryan’s abuse.  Before his death, Bishop Clarke denied knowledge of Ryan’s history, but if he were aware of what had occurred, then he failed to make further enquiries and subsequently placed Ryan in positions of responsibility, with access to children, across the Diocese for a further two decades;
  • Some of those men who were harmed as boys have managed to live stable and fulfilling lives, others have struggled to simply remain alive and continue to battle their demons on a daily basis.  We also acknowledge that some of those who were abused have also taken their own lives;
  • The attitudes held by some in the Diocese put the perceived good of the Church before the safety of a child and this was fundamental to Ryan’s being able to continue to abuse for over 20 years; and
  • The harm inflicted by Ryan may have been aggravated by the Diocese when certain victims sought redress for their harm through a contested court process.

As Bishop I humbly offer an unreserved apology on behalf of the Diocese to all those men who have suffered and continue to suffer as a consequence of Ryan’s abuse and the actions and omissions of members of the Diocese. Through those failures and omissions, the Diocese failed to act according to the Gospel. I apologise to the parents and siblings of those boys whose innocence was stolen by an evil presence who was allowed to remain amongst us by flawed and failed leaders.  I apologise to the spouses and children of those men for any shadows that reach out from the past to affect your lives together today. 

I renew my commitment, and that of the Diocese, to support fully the work of this Royal Commission generally, and particularly its inquiries into the Diocese’s response to allegations of child sexual abuse made against Ryan.  I have said previously that one of the most important and lasting benefits of holding public inquiries into these criminal and tragic stories, is that this can and should change public awareness of child sexual abuse and allow those affected to tell their truths, often for the first time publicly, with a sense of safety and acceptance.  I have seen how these inquiries have significantly broken down the remaining walls of silence in the wider community and thereby reduced the sense of isolation and shame that has been one of the many burdens carried by those who were abused.

I expect that the days of this case study committed to Ryan will show the Diocese in its worst aspects. Nevertheless it is an unambiguously good and important thing that those whom Ryan has harmed are given this opportunity to give voice to their truths and I acknowledge their courage and strength in doing so.  As the representative of the Diocese in which they were abused, I owe these brave men my respectful and humble attention.

Although the Royal Commission has only asked me in this statement to address the matter of Ryan, I acknowledge that devastation and hurt has been caused by other priests who have sexually abused children in the Diocese, and I extend my apology to those affected, their families and to the community as a whole.

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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