Six complaints of sexual abuse laid against now deceased Catholic priest


A priest who sexually and physically assaulted a teenage boy would turn up at his victim’s home to have tea with his mother.

The victim, now in his 60s, was one of six people to make complaints of sexual abuse against Father George William Harrison, who coached schoolboy rugby and served in many parishes in Christchurch and on the West Coast from 1935 until he retired in 1981.

The man recently told the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care about the physical, sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse he suffered from Harrison between 1969 and 1971.

The offending caused lifelong and at times debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Te Rōpū Tautoko, the group that coordinates Catholic Church engagement with the royal commission, found 1122 individuals had made 1680 reports of abuse against 592 Catholic clergy, brothers, nuns, sisters and lay people between 1950 and 2021.

Survivors say the figures represents a “drop in the bucket” because of underreporting and the church’s failure to keep records.

Bishop of Christchurch Michael Gielen said the diocese had records of six complaints relating to Harrison, who died in 1987. The first complaint was made in 1993, and the others from 2002.

Harrison was born in 1911 and ordained as a priest in Rome in 1935. Most of his parishes were in Christchurch suburbs, but he was in Hokitika intermittently before working in Greymouth from 1968 to 1975. He then worked in Ross until he retired.

His Grace Archbishop McKeefry, left, with Harrison, centre, in 1954.

Press archive

His Grace Archbishop McKeefry, left, with Harrison, centre, in 1954.

Newspaper archives show Harrison was an old boy of St Bede’s College, and earned a Doctor of Divinity. A report from 1959 says he was a “well known” rugby administrator who coached junior teams and refereed secondary school games under the name Mr W J Brown. He was a delegate on the Canterbury Rugby Union and the Marist club’s chaplain for 12 years.

The man who spoke to the royal commission, who did not want to be named, said Harrison immediately befriended his family when they moved to Greymouth in 1969.

Harrison would appear outside school to drive him home, then take him to secluded spots and try to kiss and touch him.

He would force the boy to perform a sex act, or punch him if he refused.

If the teen managed to get away and walk home, he would find Harrison at his home drinking tea with his mother.

Harrison told him he was a sinner and was no longer welcome in church, causing him enormous distress and anxiety.

He considered suicide and felt estranged from his family.

Over the years, he repressed the memories and turned to alcohol, but in 2000 he became triggered after stories of abuse by Catholic priests emerged in the media.

Harrison, standing to the right, in 1959.

Press archive

Harrison, standing to the right, in 1959.

”I ended up having a mental breakdown and spent eight to 10 weeks in the mental health unit… I was diagnosed with chronic PTSD, depression, anxiety, panic attacks.”

He attended counselling and made a complaint against Harrison to Bishop of Christchurch John Cunneen. The bishop apologised and told him he was the only person had made a complaint against Harrison.

The first complaint about Harrison was actually received seven years earlier.

The man thought the bishop’s apology was insincere, and said he felt victim-blamed when a letter he received from another clergyman referred to “opening up old wounds”.

Bishop John Cunneen, who died in 2010, apologised to one of the six survivors of abuse by a Greymouth priest.

Supplied

Bishop John Cunneen, who died in 2010, apologised to one of the six survivors of abuse by a Greymouth priest.

The man wanted an independent and impartial agency to be set up to receive complaints of abuse. He also wanted clergy to be thoroughly screened, for victims to be offered indefinite treatment paid for by the church, and a formal written apology for the abuse he suffered.

Gielen said records showed Cunneen wrote one letter of apology to a complainant about Harrison, but there was no record of any investigation. Cunneen died in 2010.

The church’s Professional Standards Complaints Committee did not keep complete sets of meeting minutes at the time, so it was difficult to follow up its investigations, Gielen said.

Cardinal John Dew, the archbishop of Wellington and metropolitan archbishop of New Zealand, made a formal apology to all victims of abuse from the church during a public session of the royal commission in March 2021.

RNZ

The Catholic Church says it’s shamed and saddened by abuse in the church. The church has opened its evidence at the Inquiry into abuse in care on how it’s handled complaints. (Video first published March 2021)

Gielen said the church supported the creation of an independent redress agency and was determined to ensure abuse never happened again.

It now screened trainee priests carefully and had professional independent investigators to follow-up complaints, he said.

Victim advocate Murray Heasley said records were destroyed and survivors lied to by bishops intent on protecting the institution and its assets.

It was estimated only 1% of complainants had come forward. It often took up to 50 years for someone to report the abuse they had suffered – a symptom of the debilitating effect it had, Heasley said.



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