The former Melbourne Catholic Archbishop has been heavily criticised for failing to act on allegations of rape, sexual misconduct and animal torture against priests in order to protect the Church from scandal, an inquiry has found.
Archbishop Thomas Francis Little, who headed the Archdiocese from 1974 to 1996, was found to have dismissed or ignored serious allegations against a number of priests, even moving some alleged abusers to other parishes where they continued to offend.
A report from the child sex abuse royal commission focussed on the allegations against one priest in particular, Father Peter Searson, in relation to his conduct in the parishes of Doveton and Sunbury.
Among the allegations that Archbishop Little ignored were that Searson had raped a woman in 1974, made a "sexual advance" to a child in the confessional, sexually assaulted several boys and girls, conducted sex education classes with students in his bedroom and heard how some parishioners would not allow their children to be alone with him.
As well as other concerns raised to Little about Searson's "unpleasant, strange, aggressive and violent" behaviour, there were also two instances in which he was said to have tortured animals in front of children, including stabbing a bird to death with a screwdriver, pointing a gun at some children and showing a dead body to some altar boys.
Despite the "remarkable" number of complaints against Searson, who died in 2009, Little moved him on from Sunbury to Doveton in 1986 where he continued to be a "grave risk to the safety of children".
The report described how the "catastrophic human consequences of inaction" against Searson culminated in the sexual assault of another boy in 1992, named in the report as BVC.
The report states: "We are satisfied that, by October 1986, the complaints that Archbishop Little was aware of in relation to Father Searson's conduct with children were sufficient for any reasonable person to form the view that he ought to be removed from parish ministry. Archbishop Little did not take that action. Instead, he chose to do nothing. In doing nothing, he failed to protect the children of the parish and the Holy Family School.
"The consequence of his inaction was that children were left at risk of harm, including sexual harm, by Father Searson.
"The experience of BVC demonstrates the catastrophic human consequences of inaction. The abuse of BVC, in 1992, occurred many years after the Archdiocese had come into possession of information which could and should have led to the removal of Father Searson.
"The fact that Father Searson remained in a position of authority as a parish priest – a position he exploited to abuse BVC – is directly attributable to Archbishop Little's ongoing failure to take action against Father Searson."
Detailing the allegations against Searson, one parishioner wrote to Little in 1986 to discuss a number of "problems" with Searson brought up by parents, including that he had twice produced a handgun and on one occasion pointed it at children.
In April 1993, Father Searson was also found to have threatened a girl at the church entrance with a knife. He admitted to the incident, but described his actions as a joke.
In 1988, some children said Father Searson had come across a cat in the school grounds, picked it up by the tail and swung it over the fence surrounding the school leading to its death. Searson claimed the animal was already dead when he picked it up.
In 1991, a child's mother at Holy Family School made a complaint that Father Searson had stabbed a bird to death with a screwdriver in front of several children.
Some children who had been serving as altar boys at a funeral described how Searson called them over to the coffin and asked: "Have you ever seen a dead body?" He proceeded to open the coffin and showed them the corpse. One archbishop who gave evidence for the report said showing young children a dead body in a coffin revealed Father Searson as "mad" and "psychotic".
The report stated that it was "astonishing" that Archbishop Little took no action in response to the serious allegations against Searson, including those detailing the sexual abuse of children.
It added: "He suggested, unreasonably, that Father Searson was innocent and the allegations were baseless or unjustified. He conveyed that Father Searson had his support and confidence, while the parishioners did not. It was an unjustifiable and irresponsible position for Archbishop Little to take."