EXCLUSIVE: Why would the Catholic Church put “a man like that” in the role, his accuser wants to know.
When an Australian archbishop’s conviction for covering up child sexual abuse threw the Catholic Church into crisis this year, Pope Francis appointed Greg O’Kelly to replace him.
But child abuse survivor Michael* is stunned the pontiff would turn to a South Australian bishop he says mishandled his complaint about a teacher who groomed and sexually abused him in the 1990s.
“With my experience of Greg O’Kelly, it is absolutely astounding that they would put a man like that in that role,” Michael told SBS News.
'I didn’t believe him'
Bishop O’Kelly was the headmaster of Adelaide’s St Ignatius College in 1995 when Michael, a former student, told the clergyman he had been abused by teacher Stephen Hamra three years earlier when he was just 14.
“A boy was being hurt and I didn’t believe his version of the ordeal,” Bishop O’Kelly conceded to Michael in a letter sent almost two decades after their meeting. “It is with sorrow that I admit that now.”
Hamra stayed in the Catholic school system - and even went on to review a key child protection policy at another college - until the police notified the church of separate allegations against him in 2011.
Hamra, 61, who was last year convicted of offences against one victim dating back to the 1970s and ‘80s, was found guilty in April in relation to a second victim. He is awaiting sentencing.
The events prompted the school to get back in touch with Michael in 2012 - his first contact since he met with Bishop O’Kelly as a confused and angry teenager years earlier.
After conceding Michael’s claims were “utterly credible”, the Jesuits - the religious order that ran St Ignatius - quietly settled his case without admitting wrongdoing in 2012 for a six-figure sum.
The Jesuits’ Australian provincial, Father Stephen Curtin, also agreed with Michael and his family that minutes of the 1995 meeting distributed by Bishop O’Kelly were “not a true and accurate” account of what took place.
“It was clear that they had an objective of tying up loose ends,” said Michael, who added Bishop O’Kelly’s handling of the 1995 meeting had caused him lasting distress.
“I continue to believe that he mishandled it, though he says he didn’t.”
Overnight stays banned
In a 2012 email to a colleague, Bishop O’Kelly conceded only that he “failed in the rendering of appropriate pastoral care”. He argued that his hands were tied because police did not pursue charges and Hamra denied the abuse.
But SBS News can reveal Hamra was reinstated despite then-Director of Public Prosecutions Paul Rofe not ruling out “there being reasonable prospects of conviction” were the matter to go to court.
“I have determined that a prosecution would not be in the best interests of the victim,” the late Mr Rofe said in a 1995 letter that noted a copy would be sent to the school.
“Of course if any further complaints of a similar nature are made by students or ex-students, it would be necessary to reconsider the decision not to prosecute.”
The disputed minutes of the 1995 meeting, obtained by SBS News, also indicate that Bishop O’Kelly was already aware of what he describes as other “unfounded rumours” against Hamra.
Bishop O’Kelly told the meeting, also attended by Michael’s parents, that new procedures had been put in place the year earlier as a direct result, and these were to be beefed up with further “restrictions” following their son’s complaint.
They included banning students from staying overnight at a staff member’s home, moving Hamra to the senior college and ordering him to undergo counselling.
When Michael’s parents questioned how the new rules were to be implemented and the number of boys Hamra had been hosting overnight, Bishop O’Kelly responded: “we would have to trust the staff member”.
“The staff member has admitted that his types of style of showing affection are inappropriate,” said Bishop O’Kelly, who said the college’s position was that it was “one word against another”.
“The erosion of the staff member’s name will do him great harm.”
Michael told SBS News the meeting centred as much on his initial threats to expose Hamra as the teacher’s conduct, with Bishop O’Kelly very clear “that we were not to spread rumours around anymore, and to move it on”.
Michael said he warned Bishop O’Kelly at the time: “Be it on your head if he does this to another boy”.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide has emphatically denied that Bishop O’Kelly mishandled Michael’s case, saying he “responded to the matter immediately and appropriately”.
“At that time, processes for handling such allegations were not what they are today and there was not the benefit of the lessons learned from the Royal Commission in more recent years,” the statement said.
The archdiocese also noted that when Hamra was stood down by the Christian Brothers College in 2011 “there was no allegation of any incident involving anyone at the school”.
Pope Francis last month installed Bishop O’Kelly as the Adelaide Archdiocese’s caretaker leader after Philip Wilson stood aside from his duties following his conviction for covering up abuses by NSW priest Jim Fletcher in the 1970s.
Wilson, who is appealing, is the most senior Catholic official in the world to be convicted of concealing child sex abuse but has resisted mounting public pressure to resign. On Thursday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on the Pope to sack him, backed by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.
Bishop O’Kelly, 76, has already courted controversy in the temporary leadership role by saying the church would defy new laws requiring priests to report abuse revealed during confession.
Australian Vatican ambassador Reverend Adolfo Tito Yllana did not respond to questions about whether Pope Francis had been made aware of Bishop O’Kelly’s involvement in Michael’s case prior to the appointment.
Bishop O’Kelly had finished up at Adelaide’s St Ignatius by 2007, while Hamra retrained as a school counsellor and moved to the nearby Christian Brothers College in 2008.
Documents show that in 2010 Hamra was involved in reviewing the college’s “protective behaviours and risk management”, as part of a framework based on a child protection policy signed off by Archbishop Wilson and Bishop O’Kelly.
The Christian Brothers College had cause to bring its policies to the attention of parents in 2017, when another former employee was before the courts in relation to a “child protection matter”.
“I cannot speak highly enough of the professionalism and integrity of staff and the rigorous child protection processes employed by the [school],” Principal Noel Mifsud said in the letter.
*Name has been changed
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