Graeme Sleeman George Pell
Former Catholic school principal Graeme Sleeman says he still remembers the day George Pell hung up on him.
It was the 1990s and Sleeman was in Grafton, New South Wales, more than 1,500km away from the small Victorian Catholic school he had resigned from in disgust years earlier.
He had given up everything – a lauded, successful career as an educator – to blow the whistle on a notorious paedophile priest, Father Peter Searson, who was abusing children at his school, Doveton Holy Family primary school, in the mid-1980s.
The principal had fought tirelessly to protect his children from the predations of Searson, a paedophile he describes as a “serial offender”, who was known to the diocese for offending in his last parish in Sunbury.
“They knew that he sexually abused children in Sunbury and then he was sent to Doveton,” Sleeman said.
He wrote repeatedly to parish and archdiocese officials, warning them of the priest’s sexual advances towards children and his other violent and disturbing conduct, including carrying a gun around the school.
Sleeman’s pleas for action came to naught.
He resigned and was exiled from the Catholic school system. No one would give him another job. He suspects he was blacklisted for his complaints about Searson.
In the following years, his mental health and his family’s financial security both deteriorated badly.
He began to write to Pell, then the archbishop of Melbourne, explaining how the church had treated him and asking for help.
“Can you imagine the inner turmoil and anguish I had to contend with on a daily basis when I had concrete evidence of immoral and dishonest activities being perpetrated by Father Searson and yet no one from the archbishop down would believe me?” he wrote in one letter to Pell, dated March 1998.
Sleeman, who still receives counselling and now lives in a caravan on a property in Queensland, told Pell he had paid an “immeasurable price for my effort and loyalty, and the past 12 years have been like hell”.
After a series of unreturned correspondence, Sleeman’s phone rang, out of the blue.
It was the archbishop.
“He rang me up and he said ‘what do you want?’,” Sleeman told the Guardian. “I said ‘I want you to make a public statement that the stance I took in Doveton was the correct one, I want you to do that in all the national printed media and all the national television and radio’.”
“He said ‘I can’t do that’ and hung up.”