The psychopath priest who terrorised a small town

Priest Peter Searson in a school staff photograph at Holy Family Primary School. Photo / Supplied
Priest Peter Searson in a school staff photograph at Holy Family Primary School. Photo / Supplied

WARNING: DISTURBING CONTENT

He was a paedophile, a psychopath and a thief who despised women, had a fetish for children and a sneering hatred for the locals of the tiny community.

The creepy Father Peter Searson, who wore his yellow fingernails long and manicured, liked dressing up in an army uniform and carried a pistol he sometimes pointed at parishioners.

He stole A$40,000 from the parish finances, killed or tortured animals in front of children and showed them a dead body in a coffin.

He got children to touch his penis, made them kneel between his legs, loitered around the children's toilets and audio-taped primary schoolers in the confessional box when their admissions became "hot".

Searson was the fifth child-molesting priest sent by the Catholic Church to the working class community of Doveton, 31km southeast of Melbourne.

With his four predecessors - Father Thomas O'Keeffe, Father Wilfred Baker, Father Victor Rubeo and another priest - Searson gave Doveton's Catholic Holy Family congregation a 35-year period of sexual abuse.

But as letters from desperate locals show, it was Searson that tore Doveton apart.

Within just two years of his appointment as parish priest, Doveton's parishioners and parents were so desperate to rid their community of Searson's vile presence, they mounted a petition to remove him.

Dozens of handwritten notes and letters of complaint written to church authorities reveal shocking details of his abuse and Doveton locals' anguish at his continuing presence.

Father Peter Searson wore his yellow fingernails long and manicured. Photo / Supplied
Father Peter Searson wore his yellow fingernails long and manicured. Photo / Supplied

The letters, tendered in evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sex Abuse, lay bare a harrowing period in Doveton's history.

But the letters and the petition were all in vain. Searson remained at Holy Family for 13 years until he was finally ousted for assaulting two boys.

By then, Searson's sexual abuse and divisive nature had left a trail of broken lives.

Doveton was little more than two decades old when Searson arrived to lead the Holy Family church as its parish priest.

Established in the 1950s, the post World War II suburb was a disadvantaged, low socio-economic public housing estate settled by migrants.

It was on January 21, 1984, that Searson turned up at the church next door to Doveton's Holy Family Primary School.

He already had a disgraceful record with children and a reputation for hating women.

Complaints about the then 61-year-old stretched back to when he had worked at the St Paul's School for the Blind at Kew in Melbourne a decade before.

Originally from Adelaide, and a latecomer to the priesthood, Searson received his first formal complaint of sexual abuse in 1974, 12 years after his ordination in Rome.

This parent said she had taught her daughter to treat Father Searson as "Danger stranger" and asked what priest made children kneel between his legs. Picture / Royal Commission
This parent said she had taught her daughter to treat Father Searson as "Danger stranger" and asked what priest made children kneel between his legs. Picture / Royal Commission

By 1978, he had been moved to Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the northwestern Melbourne suburb of Sunbury.

Apart from claims of sexual abuse, Searson caused "deep and bitter resentment ... and hurt" among parishioners, according to a letter tendered at the royal commission.

Written by his assistant priest at Sunbury, Phil O'Donnell, to the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne in 1982, it describes how Searson's "utter humiliation of women has to be seen to be believed. He revels in reducing people to tears".

Father O'Donnell said Searson had driven parishioners away with his open nastiness, had savaged normally "tough" parish nuns, making them cry, and launched bitter recriminations at members of the congregation he felt had not put enough in the church plate.

A 1983 letter from the principal of St Anne's Catholic School in Sunbury to the local bishop highlights a shortfall in a church loan.

"Made from the school's Provident Fund in 1978 for a library and resources area, the loan was for A$90,000 and the cost shown is only A$57,927. I wonder what the balance was used for," the principal wrote.

The headmaster at the next school Searson was to be transferred to, Graeme Sleeman, would later tell the church hierarchy he had proof that Searson had stolen A$40,000 from school funds.

But Mr Sleeman's pleas fell on deaf ears in the church hierarchy.

Searson's transfer from Sunbury to Doveton set off a flurry of complaints.

The Holy Family Church at Doveton. Photo / Google
The Holy Family Church at Doveton. Photo / Google

One handwritten letter, from a group of parishioners, expressed their "disgust at the way" Searson had conducted a Mass for children taking their first communion. with a sermon "based on pornography/censorship".

The litany of grievances about Searson include his abuse of the school's tuckshop ladies, padlocking the school gates to keep children out, and punishing children if their parents lodged complaints.

Searson allowed his dog, Rex, described by one assistant priest as Searson's "only friend", to urinate and defecate around the tuckshop.

Searson had also "pointed a handgun at a couple" of parishioners and was "turning people, especially teenagers and children ... away from the church".

Searson had also berated parishioners for not leaving at least $5 to $10 in the church plate because they were "not below the poverty line".

And "people employed at the school have been threatened by Father with their jobs if they disagree with him".

Letters between church and school officials note that when Searson was asked about complaints he demanded to know the names of the parents who had reported on him.

This letter from a parishioner complained that Father Searson had delivered a sermon on pornography. Photo / Supplied
This letter from a parishioner complained that Father Searson had delivered a sermon on pornography. Photo / Supplied

Taping confessions

In November 1985, Catholic nun Sister Joan Powell wrote to a church superior to complain that Father Searson was audio-taping children's confessions.

She wrote that Searson had told the Grade Five teacher that, referring to the children's confessions "when it starts to hot up I'll start the tape".

In the letter to Father Doyle, Sister Powell wrote: "There is one girl in the Grade 5 class whose parents have already asked that their daughter not go to Fr. Season for confession because she was so upset after Father made her kneel between his knees.

"Two other girls in the class do everything possible to avoid F. Searson as he always cuddles them."

The letters regarding Searson show the distress parents felt at his insulting snobbery - like the family he told them their house "wasn't good enough" for a home mass because it didn't have carpet - to their despair when the church did nothing about his sexual abuse.

Written to the Archbishop, bishops, the Vicar General of the Church, they complain about Searson holding hands with children during confession, and asking young girls if "they looked at themselves when undressing".

Many letters declare that both teachers and parents had advised children not to go alone to Father Searson's office.

In July, 1987, schoolteacher Faye Chandley wrote a file note about a pupil who had "asked to leave classroom and speak with me" and had "sat in chair shaking and crying too ashamed to tell about what had happened to her".

The girl, named Julie Stewart, would later give evidence to the Royal Commission about what Searson had done to her as a third-grader.

In Ms Chandley's note, Julie tells her about Searson coercing her with dolls and wanting to "put his penis at the top of her thighs ... talked of ejaculation - white stuff came out - wanted her to hold his penis".

The abuse "went on for a couple of years" and caused problems for Julie at home.

Ms Stewart told the Royal Commission that Searson would force her to sit on his lap during confession and indecently assault her.

"He would say to me: 'Do you love father?' And I said 'yes'. He would ask me to kiss him on the lips. I did," she told the inquiry.

During her last confession she said Searson lifted her on to his lap and pushed her against his erect penis.

"He whispered in my ear: 'You are a good girl. The Lord forgives you'."

The 9-year-old snapped and ran screaming out of the confessional and was taken to the principal, Graeme Sleeman's office.

Parents complained about Father Searson's abuse of young girls. Photo / Supplied
Parents complained about Father Searson's abuse of young girls. Photo / Supplied

Mr Sleeman, who also gave evidence at the inquiry, told how he resigned his post in 1986 at the school because of the abuse.

Parents launched a petition to get him back and to try and oust Searson, but nothing happened.

Searson would also belittle parents born abroad whose English was not up to his standard.

He also regularly made statements in his homilies saying that children whose mothers didn't work should feel loved, while those who had working mothers must "feel unwanted".

Despite the torrent of letters to Catholic leaders in Victoria, Searson endured at Doveton until March 14, 1997.

He was removed for an accusation of physical rather than sexual assault against boys.

Ms Stewart attempted suicide as a teenager, and received a A$25,000 payment from the church which she said just "retraumatised" her.

The church paid a total of A$291,000 to three of Searson's victims via the Melbourne Response programme.

Peter Searson died in 2009 before facing any child sex charges. One bishop and 15 priests paid their respects at his funeral in Melbourne.

The letters from parents and teachers about Searson are available on the Royal Commission's web page.

Where to get help in New Zealand:
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- news.com.au

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