For five long years, survivors of abuse at the hands of Dunedin clergy have waited to see if a reminder of the city’s dark past would be removed. The news that they had succeeded was greeted with relief, but the handling of the investigation into Bishop John Kavanagh has come under fire. PIJF reporter Daisy Hudson reports.
Murray Heasley was horrified. He was staring at a photo of a convicted paedophile, on display at his old high school.
That man, Magnus Murray, was proven to have committed acts described as “despicable sexual crimes against innocent and vulnerable children”.
It left Dr Heasley and a group of fellow old boys of Dunedin’s Kavanagh College incensed.
Their ire was increased by the knowledge that the school’s namesake, the then Catholic Bishop of Dunedin John Kavanagh, had been aware of abuse at the time and had not reported it to police.
That moment in 2017 sparked a five-year journey for justice that, even at its resolution, has been bittersweet.
Since then, he and many others have pushed for the school’s name to be changed.
It should not glorify a man who could have prevented so much pain, they argued.
The controversy surrounding Bishop Kavanagh is multifaceted, but in a nutshell, survivors have argued that he not only knew of abuse in the diocese and failed to act, but that his actions actively allowed that abuse to continue both locally and elsewhere.
The South is considered an epicentre for abuse in religious institutions, and many survivors have shared their stories with the Royal Commission into Abuse in Care.
While that process is ongoing, last week the efforts of campaigners were finally realised when the Catholic Bishop of Dunedin, the Rt Rev Michael Dooley, announced he would change Kavanagh College’s name to Trinity Catholic College, in 2023.
He acknowledged the church had let survivors down badly.
It was a victory, and one praised by campaigners.
But the moment was marred for some by a simultaneous announcement by Cardinal John Dew about the findings of a long-running investigation into Bishop Kavanagh’s actions while he was in office from 1957 to 1985.
While it found Bishop Kavanagh failed to act in one case, that of a complaint against Fr Creek Schokker in 1963, it absolved him of responsibility for his response to claims of abuse against Magnus Murray.
Because Murray admitted abuse to the bishop and was sent to Australia for treatment, Bishop Kavanagh acted, Cardinal Dew says, in accordance with canon law at the time.
Murray became a priest in the Auckland Diocese in 1979 after returning to New Zealand.
He had swapped letters with Bishop Kavanagh while in Australia, and in 1975 the bishop told him he would not be able to return to Dunedin, because “the local implications of past events, and these alone” prevented it.
Instead, Bishop Kavanagh would grant Murray’s transfer to any other diocese of his choosing, he wrote.
“I am only too happy to confirm … the only reason for your not being back in Dunedin are now local conditions and attitudes.
“I regret that your priestly zeal and talents cannot be at my service here,” he wrote.
There are suggestions Murray continued to offend in the North Island until his retirement in 1990.
He was jailed for five years in 2003 after admitting 10 offences against four Dunedin boys from 1958 to 1972.
Murray was laicised — removed from the priesthood — in 2019, and lives in a rest-home.
Cardinal Dew accepts survivors may not be happy with the investigation’s finding.
He goes on to say the Church acts immediately on abuse complaints now, and that any form of abuse, misconduct or inappropriate behaviour is not acceptable.
To say survivors are unhappy is an understatement.
“Dew continuing to excuse the Church’s fundamental moral, ethical and spiritual failing on the basis of canon law at the time is deeply troubling,” Dr Heasley and Liz Tonks, representatives of the Network of Survivors of Abuse in Faith-Based Institutions and their Supporters, say.
“Canon law does not excuse child criminal sexual assault and if it did, every Catholic institution should be closed down immediately as an extraordinary danger to children.”
It is a point many have made since the announcement.
Even if Bishop Kavanagh followed canon law, what about the law of the land?
Why did he not report what he knew to police?
Why did he write Murray a glowing reference upon his return to New Zealand?
And did he have a moral obligation to prevent further harm?
The Otago Daily Times asked Cardinal Dew if he believed Bishop Kavanagh had a responsibility, legally or morally, to report the complaints to police, and if he accepted Bishop Kavanagh could have prevented further abuse from occurring.
“While much more could have been done at the time, because Bishop Kavanagh died in 1985, we do not know what consideration he gave to such matters,” he replied.
“The investigation relied on the written records. We now know what the records show Bishop Kavanagh did and did not do. And it is important to note that strict processes are in place today to prevent and deal with abuse.”
He denied the view of some survivors that his statement essentially whitewashed Bishop Kavanagh’s handling of the Magnus Murray issue.
When he became aware of allegations, he referred the matter to Rome under the Pope’s Vos estis lux mundi process, which requires the Metropolitan Archbishop of a country to inquire into and report to Rome any serious allegations against a bishop.
“Because Bishop Kavanagh was dead, Rome subsequently asked me to institute a local investigation, which I did through the National Office for Professional Standards.
“A very thorough inquiry was conducted by an independent investigator, which led to the finding that Bishop Kavanagh had not acted on a complaint against Fr Schokker.”
The Otago Daily Times requested a copy of the investigation report, with identifying details of survivors redacted to protect their privacy.
That request was denied.
“Survivors need to know that anything they say to NOPS or a NOPS investigator will remain private to them and not be given to the media.”
The road to the name change has been a long and complex one.
Those pushing for the change have questioned the time it has taken, and why a years-long investigation was needed for the decision to be made.
It should have been a simple process, and it should have been a decision made by Bishop Dooley at the time, Male Survivors Otago manager Michael Chamberlain says.
Some survivors had died before the outcome was announced.
“Victims I deal with are people who are continually treated unfairly by not being heard, or diverted and pushed away by processes and retraumatised.”
Churches offer excuses about their processes as to why they did not act on complaints or referrals, he says.
“Are churches and their officials above the law?”
The change of the name at the college is another step that rights some wrongs, but the majority of the community are “blissfully unaware” of the impacts abuse can have.
“They simply fail to understand what survivors of abuse have to face on a daily basis. Victims are retraumatised by names, places, people’s conversations, and indeed a lot more.”
He also points out that the name Kavanagh College was not popular when it was initially changed in 1989 following the amalgamation of Moreau College for girls and St Paul’s High School for boys.
For his part, Bishop Dooley says while it was not necessary for there to be an investigation in order for the school’s name to be changed, he made the decision that it was the right thing to do.
He acknowledges the process took a long time.
Former Kavanagh College pupils Christian Unkovich-McNab and Sam Murphy got involved after reading Otago Daily Times coverage in 2018.
They penned an open letter to the school, and held a public meeting where survivors told their stories and spoke about the impact of the school bearing Bishop Kavanagh’s name.
They had no idea when they began campaigning for change that a decision would not be made for several years, and that momentum would become bogged down with what they describe as inertia.
“In hindsight I guess we were a bit naive about the church institution,” Mr Murphy says.
“We thought it would be quite obvious to people. We didn’t quite understand the depth of the hierarchy and the conservatism that that institution has.”
They felt waiting for an inquiry before deciding on the name change was disempowering for survivors, who were not being believed.
“It should have been enough that people said, ‘This hurts me and my personal journey would benefit from this name not being here’,” Mr Murphy says.
“We talked to people who would take the long way up the hill, avoid that block, because they didn’t want to see the name.”
They were accused of harassment, of being trouble-makers, of being anti the church and the school.
None of that was the case, they say.
They saw the change as a positive one.
“He [Bishop Kavanagh] completely failed, and we don’t feel like that’s a reason to celebrate someone or name a school after them,” Mr Unkovich-McNab said.
They hope as the name change takes effect, pupils at the school are educated about its history and why the change is being made.
Despite the anger over how the process has unfolded and the findings of the investigation into Bishop Kavanagh, survivors recognise the significance of the decision to rename the school, both in New Zealand and internationally.
They hope it will spark similar reckonings at other schools and institutions where cases of abuse have been proven.
Also, they say, they hope it puts other churches on notice.
By Daisy Hudson