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PNG bishop confirms reinstatement of ‘playful’ Australian priest

Bishop Rolando Santos with Fr Neil Lams
Bishop Rolando Santos & Fr Neil Lams

JOANNE McCARTHY | Newcastle Herald

NEWCASTLE - A Papua New Guinea Catholic bishop says he will reinstate an Australian Vincentian priest to a PNG high school despite a police investigation of allegations involving school students, and a church investigation confirming the priest touched students’ legs and sometimes slapped them.

Bishop Rolando Santos said Australian Vincentian priest Neil Lams was “firm, upright and committed” and he was not changing the priest’s assignment as chaplain to the PNG school.

The bishop reserved the right to take defamation action against people, including school teachers, who complained about the priest’s behaviour.

A church investigation report, which Bishop Santos supplied to the Newcastle Herald, found no evidence to support allegations Father Lams sexually abused two female students at a Catholic high school in eastern PNG.

But investigators for the PNG Catholic Church Office of Right Relationships in Ministry found evidence of confessional “incidents”, where Father Lams touched students on the legs and asked questions about sex that left students “embarrassed or scared or hurt or surprised”.

Investigators also accepted the priest sometimes slapped and hugged students and squeezed them on the cheeks, but rejected the actions were sexual.

The priest’s approach was “inappropriate when compared with the usual way a confession is conducted”, investigators found.

Father Lams told investigators the slapping and hugging was in “a playful, fun way. This is all innocent”.

Bishop Santos criticised Port Stephens woman Wendy Stein, who runs a family planning project in PNG supported by Australian Rotary, for reporting allegations to police in September following concerns about a Catholic Church investigation of the allegations against Father Lams that started in March.

In an email to the Herald, Bishop Santos confirmed the police investigation. He said police did not object to Father Lams travelling to Rome with him this month to attend 400th anniversary celebrations relating to St Vincent de Paul, who founded the Vincentians.

Father Lams was ordained in Australia in 2011 and served short stints in Sydney, Melbourne and Townsville before requesting a missionary appointment.

It is the second church investigation of sexual abuse allegations against Father Lams in PNG after an allegation in 2016 involving a Port Moresby teenager.

The church investigation report relating to the high school heard evidence from students and teachers that Father Lams saw two female students at his house, “many times at restricted hours”.

The two students denied any sexual contact with the priest and said they helped clean the dishes and his house, while he offered them support.

One of the students described Father Lams as “a good, honest priest”.

Investigators criticised the priest for homilies by him during Sunday Mass after evidence they “pinpointed” teachers and could be construed as personal attacks.

“We conclude that there is some truth in this concern,” the investigators found.

The report recommended the priest reduce physical contact with students and asking “intrusive” questions during confessions, and observe school rules, “especially the boundaries between student and priest”.

In June the Vincentians released an interim child protection policy at the order’s St Stanislaus College at Bathurst during an apology to more than 160 former students who alleged they were sexually abused by Vincentian priests.

In the policy the order said it recognised “that there are a number of potential risks to children in the delivery of ministry within the Oceania Province”, which includes Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

The interim policy includes that Vincentian representatives should “take responsibility for ensuring that I do not place myself in situations where there is a risk of allegations of child abuse being made”.

The policy also includes that Vincentians should not “smack, hit or physically assault any child”, and it was mandatory for any concerns about child sexual abuse to be reported to church representatives and civil authorities.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

You are dead right Jakub.

Trial by media is becoming all too prevalent in Australia, mainly thanks to the tabloid press.

Jakub Majewski

First up, whether or not any abuse took place, that priest should be severely reprimanded for abusing the sacrament of confession, and perhaps should even have his license withdrawn (priests must be given permission, called a license, by their bishop in order to administer confessions).

There is no room for "playfulness" when it comes to administering sacraments, and nowhere is this more true than with confession, where a person bares their soul before the priest. There can be no informal gestures there, and especially touch.

That's why most traditional confessionals (evidently not in use here) had the priest on the other side of a wall from the penitent, with a lattice window for communication. So regardless of any abuse, this was wrong, and it indicates the priest in question has been very badly trained.

In regards to the overall situation, however, I would suggest caution in assessing it. It is true that many bishops in the past have made incredibly grave errors in judgement. It is also unfortunately true that various bishops continue to make such errors in judgement today.

Furthermore, it is also very sadly true that in various cases both in the past, and most likely in the present as well, it wasn't about errors in judgement but wilful participation in evil, whether because of an intention to conceal it, or because of actual personal involvement.

That is one side of the situation. But here's the thing: these days, priests are almost invariably "found guilty" by the media the moment any allegations arise, regardless of their truth or falsehood.

In the eyes of the media (especially the Australian media), any person making allegations against a priest is automatically more credible than the priest or anyone else defending the priest.

This is partially due to sensation-seeking, and partially due to a naïve assumption that it is better to err on the side of a potential victim than on the side of the potential abuser - a naïve assumption because if it goes wrong, then the result is a very real victim on the other side.

In this sense, "listening to the voices of the vulnerable" also most certainly includes the priest. It is all too often forgotten that a false allegation of sexual abuse can literally destroy a person, by effectively permanently placing them under a cloud of suspicion.

Considering these two sides of the story, I think that when a bishop is willing to defend a priest in public in this manner, this also needs to be carefully thought over before anyone launches into criticism.

Certainly, in the present situation, it seems near-suicidal for a bishop to side with a priest when there is a strong indication of abuse. To do so, then, would be far more than merely naïve - unless the bishop is truly convinced that the inquiry was right, and that there was no abuse involved.

In that case, the bishop's duty is then to protect the priest under his care from unjust allegations. And this is no less important than protecting the victims of abuse, because such allegations, when false, can destroy lives.

There are known cases where priests were unable to take the pressure of being presumed guilty, and suffered great trauma or even committed suicide, only to ultimately be exonerated by the secular legal system.

It most certainly would not be right for the bishop to reassign the priest just to calm things down, if the allegations are false.

There needs to be a balance. Careful inquiry, yes. Severe penalties for the guilty, both of any abuse, and of concealing abuse, definitely.

But you cannot simply assume that a bishop deciding in favour of an accused priest is failing in judgement.

Clement Papa

Bishop Rolando Santos is naive about the sensitivity surrounding the specific circumstances regarding Fr Neil Lams' public relations. These are serious allegations raised in the Church's own internal investigation.

Fr Neil has lost integrity and public trust among the students. I do not understand why Bishop Santos' insistence on appointing Fr Neil back to this ministry. Bishop Santos should also listen to the voices of the vulnerable.

Living in Australia in the midst of the Royal Commission in the last two years I have realised that it was not just the institutional sex scandal that rocked the Australian Catholic Church but also the lack of prudent judgement from the leaders in religious congregation and bishops.

It is time we learn to let go power and listen to those voices that call us to change.

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