The many sins of ‘disturbed’ priest Peter Searson

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Australian Broadcasting Corp. / Four Corners

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Peter Searson became parish priest at Doveton in Victoria in 1984 and was closely involved with the Holy Family school

An accused paedophile priest, who threatened a girl with a knife and killed a bird with a screwdriver in front of children, has again been the subject of horrific claims at an Australian inquiry.

(Some readers may find the contents of this article disturbing)

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse has heard many allegations in its two-year history, but none more disturbing than those against Catholic priest Peter Searson.

Apart from allegations of repeated child sex abuse, the late Searson is said to have made children kneel between his legs during confession, tape-recorded confessions he found titillating, killed a cat by swinging it over a fence by its tail, showed children a dead body, shoplifted and misappropriated parish money.

Not for the first time, Searson’s name was brought up at the commission on Wednesday when Australia’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal George Pell, continued giving evidence.

As the commission heard that the Church failed to act against Searson despite multiple claims of child abuse, Cardinal Pell described him as “one of the most unpleasant priests I have ever met”.

This echoed former priest, Philip O’Donnell, who had told the inquiry his former colleague “really was a psychiatrically disturbed man”.

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Getty Images

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Australian Cardinal George Pell was questioned by an Australian Royal Commission over his knowledge of Searson’s actions

Searson, who died aged 86 in 2009 without having faced child sex abuse charges, was alleged to have committed his litany of misdeeds in three parishes in Victoria in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

His transgressions began soon after he joined the Sunbury parish outside Melbourne in 1977. A witness identified only as BVD told the commission that when he was a nine-year-old altar boy, he was sexually abused almost every Saturday for six months by Searson, having been made to wash his car and mow his lawn.

“He was a very scary man and very intimidating, with a gaze that would just pierce you like he was looking right through you,” said BVD, who told the hearings he had suffered from depression and had tried to commit suicide three times.

Cruelty and intimidation

Searson was moved to the parish of Doveton in 1984, where he continued to offend.

The commission has heard the rogue priest made girls sit on his lap for confession. He taped “hot” confessions of primary schoolchildren, some of whom he ordered to kneel between his legs while confessing, and also repeatedly sexually abused a nine-year-old girl in his confessional booth in the mid-80s.

Around that time Searson, who was licensed to carry a gun, is said to have terrified senior high school students on a school cleaning assignment by pointing an army service revolver at them.

In 1993, he allegedly held a large knife to the chest of a young girl in church, saying: “If you move this will go through you”.

Searson’s reputation was made even more macabre by allegations of animal cruelty. In one apparent act of intimidation, he killed a bird in front of children by stabbing it with a screwdriver. On another, he swung a cat by its tail and threw it over a fence, killing it.

The commission has heard Searson also scared children by showing them a body in a coffin, and was known for loitering in boys’ toilets. He was also caught shoplifting and misappropriating Church funds.

As Searson’s reputation for bad conduct snowballed, teachers began refusing to send children to see him, and tried to ensure children were never alone with him.

In 1989, a group of parents had given Cardinal Pell, then a regional bishop, a list of concerns about Searson at a specially convened meeting. The cardinal on Wednesday told the commission he had referred the matter to Melbourne Archbishop Frank Little, also now deceased, but conceded he could have “been a bit more pushy” to see Searson brought to account.

Despite the claims against Searson, investigations by police and by Church officials failed to produce any sex abuse charges against him – something for which Victoria Police have expressed regret to the commission.

Searson was, however, charged by police in the 1990s for the physical assault of a young boy, and given a suspended sentence.

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