Vatican overturned bishop's ban on priest

Brian Lucas has been asked to explain why he didn't take notes when interviewing abusive priests. (AAP)

A royal commission has heard that a priest who was banned from public ministry by his bishop managed to get the Vatican to re-instate him.

It took almost 20 years for the pope to defrock an Australian priest for allegedly indecently assaulting a boy, the royal commission into child sex abuse has heard.

And when his bishop banned him from saying Mass in public after complaints against the priest, the Vatican overturned the decision.

John Gerard Nestor was found guilty in court but was later acquitted of indecent assault charges against the boy in the NSW parish of Wollongong.

The commission is currently looking at how the Catholic Church under its own law - canon law - deals with priests or religious against whom allegations have been made, but no convictions obtained.

In particular it is looking at the case of Nestor, 50, who was a priest in Wollongong when he was found guilty of indecent assault of a teenage altar boy in 1996.

The priest admitted he had slept on mattresses on a floor with the boy and his younger brother in July 1991, but he denied assaulting the boy.

He was acquitted on appeal in 1997.

A series of investigations ensued, involving canon lawyers, Australian church processes, the NSW ombudsman and the highest echelons of the Vatican.

Ultimately, Pope Benedict XVI dismissed Nestor from the priesthood in October, 2008.

When more complaints emerged, Bishop Philip Wilson asked Nestor to stand aside from public ministry while the church's professional standards office assessed them.

Nestor, who ran summer camps for altar boys, was alleged to have watched boys showering, and playing inappropriate games. One boy had complained that he had seen "Nestor touch his brother ... 'on the penis and the bum'".

Bishop Wilson, who is now Archbishop of Adelaide, said Nestor rejected a recommendation by church assessors he go for psychological assessment.

Bishop Wilson decreed Nestor not celebrate Mass publicly.

Nestor challenged the decree and two years later, the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy ordered he be reinstated.

The commission heard another Vatican judicial body, the Apostolic Signatura took five and a half years to consider an appeal to the finding.

"There was a lot of confusion about procedures within the church (at the time)," the bishop said in reply to a question about rights under canon law.

Nestor asked Bishop Wilson to release him from the diocese so he could go elsewhere. Bishop Wilson said he refused and wanted Nestor to voluntarily stand aside from the ministry.

Nestor went to the US and Africa without the bishop's permission.

Earlier at Tuesday's hearing, Brian Lucas, the secretary-general of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference gave evidence of a confidential conversation with Nestor in 1993.

Fr Lucas, who has been criticised by the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry for his failure to take notes when he interviewed alleged clerical abusers, did not take notes in the Nestor case.

The senior cleric repeated on Tuesday this was because it helped the men he interviewed tell the truth.

He said Nestor denied the allegations and said he experienced "a level of discomfort" about what Nestor told him about conversations of a sexual nature he had with boys.

Nestor's explanation was he was teaching them about conscience.

Fr Lucas may be asked to return to this hearing which is ongoing.

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