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Allegations against former priest surface

A former Parish Priest of Tumut was removed from his position following an investigation into complaints regarding inappropriate behaviour towards children, the Catholic Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn revealed this week.

Father Brian Hassett was moved from Tumut to Canberra’s Lanigan House, a place for retired clergy.

Reports by The Canberra Times, ABC and Guardian Australia were published earlier this week focussing on concerns about the proximity of Father Brian’s accommodation to Canberra schools.

The archdiocese has since released a statement to inform the Canberra community that Fr Brian has been moved to another facility.

Many in the Tumut community have been led to believe the reason for Father Brian’s departure from Tumut in 2014 was due to illness, and are unhappy with the conduct of the Archdiocese in relation to the local parish.

Legal documents obtained by the Tumut and Adelong Times show that the allegations were put forward by two people.

The first reads: “[The victim] has complained that on a number of occasions during 2003 or 2004 Father Brian put his arms around her and/or kissed her on the head or attempted to kiss her on the cheek. [The victim] claims these incidents occurred around the school and around the church when other people were around. She further claims that this behaviour made her feel uncomfortable.

“[The victim] has also complained that during 1999 or 2000 when she was involved in altar servicing Father Brian showed her and two other children around his house including to the upper floors.”

The victim is understood to have been in her mid teens at the time of the first incident and around 10 years old at the time of the second incident.

A separate second complaint reads: “[The victim] has complained that on two occasions in 1989 or 1990 when she was in year four or five, Father Brian cuddled her from behind with both his arms around her and nibbled or sucked on her ear. [The victim] claims this incident occurred in the presbytery and others in the Church and on both occasions Father Brian and her were alone.”

Complaints were made to the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese.

The Archdiocese launched an internal investigation, and current and former McAuley students and staff were asked to respond to questions about their interactions with the father.

The investigation led to Father Brian’s removal from the Tumut parish.

An Archdiocese spokesperson said one of the complaints was passed on to the NSW police, and after consultation the matter was dealt with internally, with oversight from the NSW Ombudsman’s office, however, police said they had no record of any investigation.

“Tumut Police have not heard of any allegations regarding Father Brian Hassett,” said Sergeant Bryan Hammond.

A NSW Police spokesperson also said they could not find any evidence of any investigation regarding a Tumut school in the relevant time period, in the general NSW Police, Sex Crimes unit, or in the records of any other branch.

Representatives from the Archdiocese, the Vicar-General and a Professional Standards Officer, came to Tumut to speak to some parishioners about Father Brian’s departure on two occasions following the investigation.

It is understood these meetings occurred more than twelve months after he had been moved to Canberra, and only after repeated questions from the parish.

Father Brian is now over 80 years old, and is reported to be in poor health.

In a statement released Thursday, Matt Casey, Director of the Institute for Professional Standards and Safeguarding in the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn, said at no stage has the safety of children been compromised through the accommodation of clergy at Lanigan House.

He said in response to recent community concerns Fr Hassett was on Thursday relocated from Lanigan House to “appropriate alternative accommodation”.

Fr Hassett was the subject of sustained complaints relating to his time as Parish Priest of Tumut, Mr Casey said.

An investigation into complaints against Fr Hassett commenced in 2013. Fr Hassett was temporarily relocated from Tumut to Lanigan House in early 2014 in response to the preliminary findings of the investigation. In late 2014, the investigation was finalised and the allegations against Fr Hassett sustained, Mr Casey said.

Fr Hassett appealed the matter.

In August 2015, Fr Hassett tendered his resignation. He continued to reside at Lanigan House given its proximity to Canberra Hospital and his ongoing medical condition. Following the establishment of the Institute for Professional Standards and Safeguarding, the Archdiocese conducted a thorough risk assessment of the case.

Given the location of Lanigan House, the Principal of Saints Peter and Paul primary school, Garran was advised in May 2016.

“It is important to note that there were no concerns about Fr Hassett’s behaviour during his time at Lanigan House,” Mr Casey said.

“Based on recent community concern and acting on my advice, the Archbishop relocated two other priests from Lanigan House. Both men were removed from ministry for other matters. I reiterate that the safety of children was not compromised at any time.”

Two priests remain in Lanigan House, one who has retired for health reasons, the other having submitted his resignation. Both men are in good standing and exercise their priestly faculties.

Anyone with information or comment about this story is encouraged to contact frances@tatimes.com.au.