Long struggle to expose evil abuse of children in the Illawarra

READ ENTIRE STORY at source: Illawarra Mercury

This story was originally published in 2012.

When the sun’s first rays creep over the horizon this morning and gently kiss, warm and illuminate the Illawarra coastline, they may be on a special mission.

First, they will touch the Pacific Ocean, and then its foaming surf and the beaches on to which it cascades.

Seconds later they will make landfall, bringing the birth of another day to all, and to two places in particular – the Bulli and Lakeside Kanahooka cemeteries. There lie at rest two special souls and, after political events this week, their headstones deserve to be bathed in sunshine.

The late Peter Cullen, former Mercury editor, in his office with many of his front-page stories.

The late Peter Cullen, former Mercury editor, in his office with many of his front-page stories.

Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if both these grave sites seem to have a particular sparkle about them today – a sort of celestial salute to good men, if you like.

Bulli is the resting place of the earthly remains of Peter Hugh Cullen, former IllawarraMercury editor and, I’m proud to say, my mate. At Kanahooka rests Father Maurie Crocker, a man of great courage who saw evil flourishing and felt it his duty to do something about it while others turned a blind eye.

Although no longer here, years ago each played his own particular role in this week’s announcement by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard of a wide-ranging royal commission into paedophilia across the country. It has been a long time coming, but I am sure each of them would cheer its arrival with gusto.

Peter and Maurie tackled this evil abuse of children in the Illawarra, and its cover-up, when it was not fashionable in some circles to expose such matters – back in 1993. I was the Mercury’s general manager at the time, having been its editor previously with Peter as my deputy, so our relationship was close.

While some people cheered from the rooftops as these evils were revealed, others damned Peter in particular and the Mercury generally for soiling its pages with such stuff.

I well remember going to get my eyes tested one day and copping a broadside from a local medico who informed me that his wife would “not have the filthy rag in the house”.

This story began long before 1993, with unsubstantiated reports of child sexual abuse in some of the local corridors of power. It was extremely hard to pin down.

Frank Arkell is all smiles at the launch of his campaign to become lord mayor again in 1995. He was killed before his first appearance in court on sex charges.

Frank Arkell is all smiles at the launch of his campaign to become lord mayor again in 1995. He was killed before his first appearance in court on sex charges.

The break came when Father Crocker, a former lay teacher in New Zealand, a professional boxer and career soldier before being ordained a priest at age 42, came to the Mercury with another priest. They spoke to Peter Cullen.

Father Crocker informed Peter of statements by three young men that they had been molested over some years by a local Christian brother and a priest. Cullen assigned a journalist named Brett Martin to investigate the allegations, and another fine journalist in Lisa Carty took up the reins as things developed down the track, enveloping two former Wollongong lord mayors – one later a local state MP – a Wollongong City Council alderman and other clergy.

The number of young men with serious allegations of abuse grew to seven. They complained that their attempts to seek redress through the local church hierarchy, headed at the time by Bishop William Murray, had led to nothing. They felt they were being ignored and a blind eye turned to their complaints of widespread sexual abuse. There was talk of a local senior police officer running interference, but that was never substantiated.

The Mercury investigated this matter for four months, taking statutory declarations from each of the complainants, before publishing the first of many reports. As events unfolded:

Former parish priest of Edmund Rice, Father Peter Comensoli (front), served 18 months' jail for sex abuse offences.

Former parish priest of Edmund Rice, Father Peter Comensoli (front), served 18 months’ jail for sex abuse offences.

Former mayor Tony Bevan was virtually branded the Mr Big of paedophile operations by the Wood Royal Commission.

Former mayor Tony Bevan was virtually branded the Mr Big of paedophile operations by the Wood Royal Commission.

  • Parish priest Father Peter Comensoli was jailed for abusing boys.
  • College principal Brother Michael Evans, transferred from Wollongong to oversee a building project on the North Coast, committed suicide the night before detectives were to interview him.
  • Former Wollongong lord mayor and then MP Frank Arkell was murdered by a deranged young man 10 weeks before he was to have appeared in court on sex charges involving young males.
  • Former mayor Tony Bevan also was alleged to be a paedophile, running a rival network to that cultivated by Arkell and his associates.
  • Wollongong City Council alderman Brian Tobin was found dead in the Illawarra escarpment bushland. There were no suspicious circumstances.
  • A church-run youth refuge was revealed as a procurement and pick-up point for child abusers.
  • To cap it all, Father Crocker, ostracised by some clergy for having the courage to speak up, ended his own life.
Former Edmund Rice principal Brother Michael Evans committed suicide in Rockhampton in 1996.

Former Edmund Rice principal Brother Michael Evans committed suicide in Rockhampton in 1996.

Wollongong City Council alderman Brian Tobin killed himself just two hours after being interviewed by investigators from the Wood Royal Commission paedophile team in 1996.

Wollongong City Council alderman Brian Tobin killed himself just two hours after being interviewed by investigators from the Wood Royal Commission paedophile team in 1996.

PETER NEWELL was the Illawarra Mercury’s editor from 1976 to 1985, when he was appointed general manager and was succeeded as editor by Peter Cullen. He retired in July 2000 and today is the chairman of ClubsNSW and ClubsAustralia.

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