PAUL PAVLOU 2005-2007

Faith betrayed

The Age, August 10, 2009

Nick McKenzie

When a Catholic priest began preying on her son, Lisa Smith* sought help. But the church's response left her feeling shaken, bewildered and betrayed. Nick McKenzie reports.

FOR an experienced detective, what is missing from a crime scene can be more telling than what is there. It could be a knife missing from its place in the kitchen or a room that seems too spotless.

When Victorian detectives seized Paul Pavlou's computer in 2007, they were struck by the lack of online history, especially given that a witness had told them only weeks before that the Healesville priest was a regular internet user. So detectives brought in one of the tools of the modern investigator, a forensic computer expert. He task was simple: to find what was missing.

Despite thoroughly wiping his hard drive, Pavlou had still left traces of where he had travelled in cyberspace and as the computer's memory was reconstructed, images with strange names began to appear.

Although only a limited number of files could be retrieved, they ultimately helped police charge Pavlou with child pornography offences. He was also charged with committing ''indecent acts'' with a minor, a crime to which the Healesville priest pleaded guilty last month.

The Pavlou case is far from closed. Before the police investigation, the mother of Pavlou's victim spent more than six months assisting an inquiry commissioned by Melbourne's Catholic Church. It was an experience that left her shaken and questioning how the church-sponsored inquiry had dealt with Pavlou's behaviour.

She is not alone. A group of victims and their families and supporters are now demanding answers about the way the Melbourne archdiocese has handled about 450 sexual abuse claims during almost 13 years. The target of their anger is the so-called ''Melbourne response'', which was introduced in 1996 by then archbishop George Pell to investigate abuse complaints and offer counselling and compensation to victims.

But several victims are now asking if the system meant to help them has instead increased their suffering while failing to hold the church publicly accountable for its failings. For instance, there has never been any public review of whether any of the 450-odd cases shed any light on how priests suspected of abuse were able to retain their positions and reoffend. In the case of Paul Pavlou, the Melbourne response process tipped off the offending priest that he was the subject of a covert police inquiry before detectives could search his house.

The victims' group is supported by at least two bishops, including Bishop Geoffrey Robinson. ''I have over the years heard a number of reports of victims feeling intimidated by the system itself,'' says Robinson. ''These feelings need to be heard and addressed.''

When Paul Pavlou arrived in Healesville in late 2005, he came as somewhat of a saviour. Five years before, a Healesville priest, David Daniel, was sent to prison for sexually abusing minors. As a priest who had also trained as a teacher, the arrival of the seemingly caring and energetic Pavlou heralded a new dawn.

But before long, Pavlou's behaviour began to raise eyebrows. Pam Krstic, a teacher at St Brigid's primary school, where Pavlou had a senior role, soon noticed he seemed overly attentive to younger boys. ''He made my hackles rise,'' recalls Krstic, who raised her concerns with other staff but says they were brushed aside.

Healesville mother Lisa Smith* had growing concerns about the 47-year-old priest's interest in her 14-year-old son, including late-night phone calls and regular sleepovers at the priest's home. She recalls shuddering when Pavlou told her that her son looked ''so cute'' when he slept.

''[He is there] Friday night, all of Saturday, Saturday evening, Sunday,'' Smith later told church investigators. ''I have had this battle of trying to get my child home.''

When she complained to the priest about his behaviour, he claimed he was simply caring for her family as it dealt with a traumatic marriage breakdown.

On a so-called ''healing retreat'' with Smith's family, Pavlou asked the teenager to massage his leg after a tennis game and again when they got home. ''[My son] was massaging his [Pavlou's] calf muscle, which I thought, you can do that yourself,'' Smith later told church investigators.

On another occasion, Smith peered into a room to discover Pavlou standing behind her son. ''They didn't know I was there and he was rubbing his fingers through his hair, patting him on the head and then he rubbed his shoulders.'' When Pavlou realised he was being watched, he ''sort of moved right away''.

In early October 2006, after Pavlou was offered a job at another church, he sought urgent counsel from the teenager via a series of text messages later discovered by Smith.

The first message stated: ''Hi bud, I hope I did not set you up last night. Urgent news. Boronia is now officially available. Do I apply?''

Nine minutes later, Pavlou texted the 14-year-old again: ''We will talk about it tonight. OK. Pray for me. Even if I go - I still want you to be part of my life. I hope you want that too.''

Other messages from Pavlou were also concerning. One said: ''Promise we sms each other everyday no matter what we are doing. PP.''

Stated another: ''You're my bestest friend. On fri when you come up for work we'll set up 2 monitors & 2 computers.''

When Smith threatened to stop her son contacting Pavlou, the priest warned her that he would stage a breakdown at the local parish. Days later, after announcing during a sermon that he was ill, Pavlou sent yet another text.

''Hi buddy. I'm still struggling. I will be back Tuesday. Please keep in contact daily if possible. I need your support. P.P.''

In late October, having failed to stop Pavlou hassling her son, Smith gave a handwritten document to the principal of St Brigid's primary school. The seven-page letter was divided into headings listing Pavlou's behaviour, including ''disrespect of parental boundaries'', ''inappropriate comments in front of children'' and ''inappropriate behaviour'' and ''text messages''. Within days, she was directed to the sexual abuse investigation system created by one of Australia's most powerful priests.

IN 1996, Pell (now a Sydney-based cardinal) decided that the 235 Victorian parishes under his control should have their own process to deal with sexual abuse in the church.

Even at its inception, the so-called Melbourne response was controversial. ''I believed that the Melbourne decision harmed the whole country by denying us the possibility of one system,'' Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Geoffrey Robinson recently wrote.

In contrast with the ''towards healing'' approach adopted elsewhere in Australia, the Melbourne response referred all complainants to a barrister appointed by the church.

For 13 years, Peter O'Callaghan, a respected Queen's counsel, has investigated abuse complaints and helped refer victims to a free counselling service and a compensation panel that, after agitation from victims, recently increased its maximum payout from $55,000 to $75,000.

All but six of the 280 victims offered compensation have accepted it and in doing so signed away their right to sue the church, where they could potentially get a higher payout but face a more onerous and expensive legal process.

O'Callaghan was 65 when he was appointed the ''independent commissioner'' and is now 77.

In 1996, Pell said O'Callaghan's appointment mirrored that of a ''royal commissioner'', because he would be paid for but operate independently of the church. But unlike a royal commissioner, O'Callaghan is unable to compel witnesses to give self-incriminating evidence, seize evidence, or issue public findings where appropriate.

When victims contact O'Callaghan, the barrister's guidelines require him to tell them of their right to go to the police, for whom he can be "no substitute".

To ensure a police inquiry is not polluted, O'Callaghan's investigation must cease until the police's work is finished and any prosecution is over. This is to avoid a scenario in which a victim gives a statement to O'Callaghan that conflicts with what they tell police, providing a means for the lawyer of the accused to attack, in court, the victim's credibility.

This is precisely one of the complaints raised by a member of the victims' group now questioning the Melbourne response. The victim, who as a boy was raped by notorious pedophile priest Terence Pidoto, has alleged that O'Callaghan told him of his right to contact police only at the end of his interview with the barrister in 2002.

"I would have liked to have been explicitly warned about this at the start of the interview," says the victim. Sure enough, Pidoto's lawyers later used this interview to question him in court.

When Smith first spoke to O'Callaghan about Pavlou, the QC was in hospital, awaiting major surgery.

''I didn't get to speak to him [properly]. He was actually in hospital and that is what made me a bit hesitant to talk to him,'' Smith later told one of the church investigators. ''I kept begging him [O'Callaghan], requesting him to put someone else there [to help me].''

A short time after speaking to O'Callaghan, a frantic Pavlou told Smith that someone from the parish had reported him. ''I need your help,'' Pavlou told her.

Days later, O'Callaghan dispatched Susan Sharkey, a psychologist with church counselling service Carelink, and Maria Kirkwood, who works for the Catholic Education Office, to meet Smith and her son.

Over the following weeks, Smith or her son had up to five tape-recorded interviews with Kirkwood or Sharkey, each potentially able to be used by Pavlou's lawyers if he was ever charged.

During a meeting between Sharkey and Smith in December 2006, Sharkey disclosed that: ''because he [your son] is the youngest person who has come through the process we are feeling our way a bit and we don't want to make it such a big issue … like if he [your son] has got it under control. So we are learning as we go here.'' And so it increasingly seemed to Smith.

It took three months after her son met Sharkey and Kirkwood on November 9 for Smith to learn that he had told the pair, via a handwritten note, that Pavlou ''said he loved me'' and that the priest had spoken to the teenager about his ''very strong temptation of the devil … a temptation to masturbate''.

O'Callaghan says this delay was partly because the young teenager had asked his mother not be shown the note.

Smith says that as more information was disclosed by herself and her son, she was not encouraged to contact authorities by either Sharkey, Kirkwood or O'Callaghan.

O'Callaghan has confirmed there is no documented advice from his office advising Smith to contact police, although he says that in late January he discussed involving police with Smith and that this was declined.

By February, the Healesville parish community was abuzz with gossip, partly spread by Pavlou, that Smith was chasing compensation with a false complaint. About the same time, O'Callaghan's office received another handwritten note from Smith's son, which stated that while he was using Pavlou's online messaging system, Pavlou had been sent a message that stated: ''Hey mate, have you got child porn yet, I need child porn.''

According to Smith's son, the person who sent that message was still in Pavlou's contact list a fortnight later. This allegation would later help police form the belief that Pavlou's computer should be seized.

But O'Callaghan took a different approach. By now, O'Callaghan had begun informing Pavlou in writing of each allegation made against him and inviting him to respond.

In March 2007, Pavlou was told that Smith's son had made fresh claims. According to the teenager, the priest had in 2006 placed his hands underneath his top and massaged his chest and, on another occasion, ''came up from behind and tried to pull down his pants in a sexual manner''.

Pavlou strenuously denied these claims to O'Callaghan, saying they were ''pure fabrication''. To resolve the impasse, O'Callaghan proposed presiding over a confidential hearing in which Smith's son and Pavlou could bring lawyers and both be questioned. Uncomfortable about the prospect of having her son grilled, Smith, who had by now sought the help of victims' advocates In Good Faith wrote to O'Callaghan via the group's lawyers to raise her concern that the ''hearing may cause [her son], who is just 15, emotional distress''. But Smith's request for a three-month adjournment was rejected by O'Callaghan, who said the process should go ahead unless her son produced ''cogent medical evidence''.

By now, In Good Faith was encouraging Smith to contact the police. The decision to do so changed everything.

THE element of surprise can make or break an investigation. But after detectives arrived at Pavlou's door, it appeared he was expecting them. Minutes later, they realised why. A letter from the priest's lawyers was in his office and, for detectives, its contents were devastating.

The letter advised Pavlou that he was the subject of a criminal investigation that may involve a search of his house and the seizing of his computer. Sure enough, the priest's computer hard drive was wiped.

Exactly when Pavlou made efforts to cover his tracks is hard to know. But what is clear is that O'Callaghan was part of a series of phone calls and letters that would have made it abundantly clear to the priest to expect a knock on his door.

A file note taken on July 11, 2007, by Smith's lawyer, Paul Holdway, records him telling O'Callaghan in early July that police were conducting a ''live'' inquiry into Pavlou. In that same conversation, Holdway's note records that he asked O'Callaghan to keep this information from Pavlou because it might upset the police investigation and that ''police won't be happy'' if this happened.

Nine days later, O'Callaghan wrote to Pavlou's lawyers. ''Mr Holdway advised me that the complaint has been reported to the police and that apparently the police are considering the matter,'' O'Callaghan told Pavlou's lawyers, who promptly told the priest.

In written responses to questions from The Age, O'Callaghan has defended his actions by posing his own questions.

''Is it suggested that I should have done nothing and that [Pavlou] … turn up at [my] hearing to be told that the hearing would not be proceeding but with no reason given?

''I did not believe or had any apprehension that I would be jeopardising a police investigation.''

O'Callaghan has also said that the information he received from Smith and her son showed Pavlou's conduct was ''inappropriate, equivocal and suspicious'' but not criminal.

Police, however, formed a different view; the touching of the teenager's upper body and attempt to pull his pants down (both reported to O'Callaghan in March) were potentially ''indecent acts''.

The reference to ''child porn'' on Pavlou's computer also sounded serious alarm bells.

Despite being warned about the police inquiry, Pavlou made a fatal mistake. He failed to simply throw out his computer, allowing a computer expert to retrieve enough evidence to show that Pavlou had downloaded more than 1000 child porn images.

Last month, after Pavlou pleaded guilty to two counts of ''indecent acts'' involving Smith's son and to possessing child pornography, he was sentenced to an 18-month suspended jail term and put on the sex-offenders' register.

The conviction brought a flood of relief and a set of fresh questions for Smith. What would have happened if she never contacted police and why wasn't she urged to do so? Why, after 13 years, is the church still ''feeling its way'' with some cases?

Earlier this year, Smith joined the group of church sex abuse victims who are demanding a review of the Melbourne response system.

''I want the church to improve the way children and parents at schools and parishes can seek help if they encounter inappropriate behaviour by a priest,'' she says.

''That is all I have ever asked for and the Melbourne archdiocese has never delivered on this.''

* Lisa Smith is a pseudonym. Her name was changed for legal reasons.

Nick McKenzie is an Age investigative reporter.

Read more: