The decision by an Australian bishop to stand aside a NSW priest because of complaints he molested children led to Vatican infighting which pitched powerful bodies against one another.
It also led to a decision that has ramifications across the globe as to how Catholic bishops can deal with priests who are suspected child sexual abusers.
The royal commission into child sexual abuse at a Sydney hearing is looking at how the Catholic Church under its own law – canon law – deals with priests or religious against whom allegations have been made.
In particular, it is looking at the case of John Gerard Nestor, who was a priest in the Wollongong diocese in NSW when he was charged with the indecent assault of a teenage altar boy in 1996. He was acquitted.
The Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson, who was the bishop of Wollongong in the late 90s, stood Nestor aside when he refused to go to a clinic for assessment as recommended by the church’s internal procedure, Towards Healing.
Nestor was told: “You are to cease functioning publicly as a priest in any place until I give you permission to do so.”
That led to a series of appeals and counter appeals to the Vatican.
Nestor went to the Congregation for the Clergy, (CFC) a powerful body within the Roman Curia (bureaucracy) which two years later upheld his appeal and said he should be reinstated.
He appealed over the CFC decision but was appointed to Adelaide before it was processed.
“I was bound in conscience in this case, I would take the matter all the way to the pope,” he said on Wednesday.
He said he would have resigned if the pope said he had to re-instate Nestor.
He had oversight in Wollongong for a while so appealed to the supreme tribunal in the Vatican, the Apostolic Signatura, to uphold the decision not to let Nestor back.
A panel of judges from the most influential scholars and churchmen in Europe were appointed when the tribunal took on the case.
“I think when they looked at this (the appeal against the CFC decision on Nestor) and said we’ll process it, the authorities then said we’ve got to really get an outstanding bank of judges to deal with this,” Archbishop Wilson said.
The decision to uphold the appeal and to keep Nestor away from public ministry was issued on March 2006.
Archbishop Wilson said the decision was relevant across the world because it clarified, not only jurisdiction, but who was competent to make decisions.
It also supported a bishop’s right to make decisions through processes like Towards Healing. But the ramifications had not been taken on board even in Australia, he said.
Francis Sullivan, chief executive of the council set up by the Australian church to respond to the royal commission, said on Wednesday the local church had never sought formal Vatican approval for Towards Healing.
“If the Vatican approves it then it becomes controlled by the Vatican curias (bureaucracies) and, at least as this case study demonstrates, that hasn’t been too flash,” he said.
The hearing continues on Thursday