Sisters of Mercy leader didn’t listen to sexual abuse victims

THE Sisters of Mercy leader admitted she was less than compassionate when sexual and physical abuse victims first started speaking out.

Not once when the allegations of abuse at Neerkol Orphanage first came to light, did Sister Berneice Loch attempt to contact victims, the Royal Commission panel heard yesterday.

That was the first port of call she should have made, she told the commission.

However, rather than contact the witnesses, who last week gave evidence of physical and sexual abuse at the orphanage which was run by the Sisters of Mercy, Sr Loch instead sought information from other Sisters, congregational personnel and sources.

Sr Loch decided to oversee the drafting of a media release to counteract those "sensationalistic" rumours.

That media release was never distributed; it was only drafted as a "measure" if the allegations got too "out of control".

The counsel assisting the commission, Sophie David, grilled Sr Loch for her response to the victims.

She was questioned also about her actions when State Government Minister for Families Kevin Lingard raised the abuse allegations in a parliamentary sitting in September 1996.

Mr Lingard said in his statement: "To date (in 1996), six calls have been received from these former residents... further allegations continue to be received about abuse to both male and female.

"Callers to the hotline allege a pattern of incidents of physical and, in some cases, sexual abuse by the priests and nuns at the orphanage."

Sr Loch responded to that statement yesterday saying, "I have no objection at all either to the hotline or to wishing people to come forward. I think that was a good thing to do.

"The sensationalism of this is what I disagree with."

When Ms David asked Sr Loch if she agreed there was nothing sensational about the Member of Parliament's statement, the latter replied: "There had been no allegation I had heard of, of sexual abuse by a Sister, yes, and that was certainly sensationalised."

Several victims started speaking up about 1993. Some of those victims revealed dark episodes of abuse and misconduct at Neerkol Orphanage.

One such allegation was sexual abuse by a Neerkol Orphanage priest and an employee; namely Father Reginald Durham and Kevin Baker. Mr Baker denies all allegations against him.

One Royal Commission witness published a book in the early 1990s about the sexual abuse she endured at the orphanage.

When Sr Loch first heard about the book, and the victim's allegations, she discredited the book.

She held that view right up to November 1996, despite several former Neerkol residents coming forward.

Sr Loch maintained she was not trying to protect the reputation of the Sisters of Mercy by not conducting further investigations into the allegations.

It wasn't until police authorities investigated the claims that Sr Loch changed her tune.

She said she complied with the investigation but admitted she only gave authorities what they asked for.

She didn't provide information to them freely, she said. "Only when I was asked."

Timeline:

1993: Former residents of the orphanage came forward to the church and the Queensland Police to report allegations of sexual abuse.

1993: A book written by AYC, a former resident of the orphanage, was the subject of media attention.

1996: The Diocese of Rockhampton and the Sisters of Mercy were aware of sexual allegations made by AYC, AYB, David Owen, AYQ and AYP.

1997: Queensland Police charged Father Durham with 40 sexual offences against five former residents of the orphanage and a former member of his parish.



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