Principal wants to know why predator Catholic priest was sent to school

8:16 pm on 26 March 2021

The principal of a Northland Catholic college is pushing to know why a predator priest was sent to his school to take up the role as rector there in the late 1970s.

Catholic church priest during a ceremony mass

Photo: 123rf

Pompallier College principal Richard Stanton told RNZ a past pupil had approached him to say he had been raped at the school.

He is urging others abused to come forward for help and redress after the sexual abuse by the priest was brought to the attention of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

It is understood at least one complaint of abuse by deceased Marist priest Fr Phil Roberts has been received by the Commission.

Fr Roberts was principal at Pompallier College in Whangārei during the late 1970s until 1981, after being principal at St Augustine's College in Whanganui.

Stanton said he recently met with Pompallier's Board of Governors and had made it clear he would be looking for answers directly from the priest's religious order over what they knew prior to Fr Roberts taking up a role as principal at the school.

"It seems they had clear knowledge of the abuse, so why was he moved to our school," Stanton said.

"I assume it was known back then of his abuse while he was at St Augustine's, before he was moved here."

He said a parent at Pompallier had previously approached him and told him he'd been raped by a priest during his own time as a pupil at the college.

The man hadn't named Fr Roberts, but Stanton estimated by the parent's age he would have been at the school the same time as Fr Roberts.

"I'm confident those things are linked," he said.

There had been rumours for decades that Fr Roberts had abused children at Pompallier, including in the school dormitory, which closed in 1981. It is understood Fr Roberts had resided at the dormitory for a period.

Stanton said he would like any apology from the Society of Mary - the priest's religious order - to include a recognition of the damage the abuse had inflicted on the wider Northland community, as well as survivors.

"It's been a long time coming to get this addressed... The community has lost a lot of trust and it's my personal view that there should be an acknowledgement of that in any apology by the Marist Fathers - recognising that community harm," he said.

He urged anyone affected by the priest's predatorial behaviour to come forward for redress and support.

"My position is absolutely clear, I'm encouraging people to come forward and get the support they need."

Fr Roberts had started his teaching career in 1952 at St Bede's College in Christchurch and ended it at St Patrick's College, Cambridge Terrace in Wellington in the mid-1980s, after being sent there from Whangārei in July 1981. He died in August 1986.

Fr Phil Roberts, Society of Mary priest and former principal of Pompallier College in Whangarei and St Augustine's College, Whanganui.

Fr Phil Roberts, Society of Mary priest and former principal of Pompallier College in Whangarei and St Augustine's College, Whanganui. Photo: Supplied / Classorama

A man, who RNZ has agreed not to name, said his deceased brother-in-law was a victim of Fr Robert's sexual abuse while a pupil at St Bede's in the mid-1950s.

He said the abuse came to light during a school reunion attended by Fr Roberts, who was aggressively confronted by his brother-in-law at the function.

"Roberts denied he could even remember him," he said.

Afterwards, his brother-in-law had a conversation with a friend who revealed he hadn't been the only one abused.

"They started talking and both of them discovered they had been abused by the same priest, Phil Roberts," he said.

RNZ can reveal that in July 2018, the New Zealand head of the Society of Mary, provincial Fr David Kennerley, was asked if the order had received any complaints of sexual abuse by Fr Roberts. In an emailed reply, Fr Kennerley outlined Roberts' teaching career before asking the reporter if he was aware of any complaints.

When pressed in a second email whether any complaints were received, Fr Kennerley didn't reply.

When RNZ asked Fr Kennerley this week to explain why he didn't respond in 2018 and whether this amounted to concealment, the former provincial refused to comment and referred the query to a Catholic communications adviser.

Yesterday, the current Society of Mary provincial, Fr Tim Duckworth, gave evidence at a Royal Commission of Inquiry hearing into how his religious order operated and had responded to sexual abuse complaints.

He told the Commission the Society of Mary preferred not to be part of the church's complaint process, would rather go it alone, and would not give a formal apology to survivors at the hearing.

''To me an apology has to be made face to face,'' he told the inquiry.

When RNZ asked how many complaints the Society of Mary received about Fr Roberts' offending, the dates these were received and whether the order had investigated abuse at the Whangārei boarding school, Fr Duckworth released a statement through the NZ Catholic Bishops Conference press office.

It stated: "The Bishops and Congregational Leaders of the Catholic Church believe that every person has an innate human dignity, therefore regard all forms of abuse as unacceptable and indefensible, accept the responsibility to continue to act to stop abuse in the Church, listen to, learn from, and support survivors, act swiftly on complaints and follow them through, ensure action on accountability is followed through for those who are proven responsible for abuse, support the need for the Inquiry and actively cooperate with the Commission, and commit to ensuring transparency.

"All documents and other matters related to abuse by priests in the Society of Mary have been provided to the Royal Commission for Abuse in Care, in accordance with requests from the Commission. I will not be commenting in the media about matters before the Royal Commission."

An abuse survivor, known as Witness G, gave a statement to the Royal Commission last year that included reference to Fr Roberts' alleged offending.

It read: "I was recently informed by an old school friend that Father Phil Roberts, the former principal of Saint Augustine's College, had indecently assaulted at least one pupil. He picked on a particular pupil, made them come back to school after hours for disciplinary reasons, and indecently assaulted them on more than one occasion. The victim is dead now and I don't think any complaint was ever made."

The Royal Commission of Inquiry did not reply to repeated requests to confirm it had received complaints against Fr Roberts.

A eulogy for Fr Roberts, given to staff and pupils at St Patrick's College in 1986 by Fr Brian Wysocki, stated: "No one walks through life without influencing others. This man and this priest influenced a great number of people, especially in his school.

"His influence will continue in the lives of each and every one of you who have known him and loved him and respected him, and in the lives of those who, mindful of their weakness, will follow this call of Christ to priesthood and religious life."

Who was Fr Phillip Roberts

Roberts was born on the West Coast, educated by the Sisters of Mercy and won a scholarship to St Bede's College. In 1945 in entered the Society of Mary, being ordained as a priest seven years later, and returning to St Bede's College 11 years later.

Having graduated from the University of Canterbury where he studied classics and English literature, he became spiritual director of the college and was also a rugby coach.

His career advanced further, becoming principal/rector of St Augustine's in Whanganui and then principal of Pompallier College in Whangārei in the late 1970s.

However, after leaving Pompallier, he took up a staff role teaching Latin and English literature at St Patrick's College, Wellington in July 1981.

He died in 1986.

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