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Abuse inquiry: Survivor rejects Church leader's 'minimising'

Abuse inquiry: Survivor rejects Church leader's 'minimising' of Michael Shirres attack

Phil Pennington, Reporter

A Catholic leader newly appointed to the church's liaison group to the royal commission is accused of telling a survivor the priest who abused her had been "healing his sexuality".

a sign for the
abuse in care royal commission of inquiry

Photo: RNZ / Patrice Allen

Anne Hill of Northland was preyed on from the age of five by Michael Shirres, a Pākehā priest who lectured in Māori theology at the University of Auckland, wrote several books on Māori spirituality, and was celebrated for decades among tangata whenua in the Far North.

At the Royal Commission hearing in Auckland this month she had a conversation with Rangi Davis, who was newly-appointed to the Catholics' Te Rōpū Tautoko group that liases with the Commission.

"We then had a conversation about the issues around abuse, and my abuser Michael Shirres from the Dominican Order," she said.

Ms Hill said she did not know Ms Davis was on Te Rōpū at the time.

"She offered me some comfort. And that comfort was to say that she believed that he was healing his sexuality with women."

All of the group's members have access to survivors' files. Ms Hill said she did not know if Ms Davis knew she had been abused by Shirres.

"There was nothing in this interaction that was mistaken. I asked her if I could put my hand into her vagina to 'heal' myself. She shook herself and indicated that that would not be okay."

Ms Hill first raised the alarm about the late priest - who was demoted to Brother after admitting his offending - 26 years ago.

Clerical abuse survivor Anne Hill.
Photo: RNZ / Mick Hall

The Church quietly put him into treatment in 1993; his crimes were only made public last year.

Ms Hill said Ms Davis' view epitomised Catholic leaders' excusing and minimising attitude of sex abuse.

"I then went on to try to explain to her that this is not a case of a good man doing a bad thing ... this is a case of a very bad man doing very bad things.

"There was a myth around Shirres, that his behaviour was to do with women, because there were some women involved. But this creates an ambivalence - where, in Davis's mind, are the children and non-consenting and vulnerable adults?"

Ms Davis was a house parent at Hato Petera, a Māori boarding school in Auckland, for 13 years to 2001, during a period when two male teachers were sexually abusing boys; they were later convicted.

Ms Davis should be removed from Te Rōpū Tautoko, Ms Hill said, but said being understood was her deepest desire.

"If the Rōpū understand us perhaps they will work for us, rather than for the Church and the commission. Are we not the children of the church?"

Rangi Davis has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Te Rōpū Tautoko chair Catherine Fyfe declined an interview and instead issued a statement saying Ms Hill had raised the matter with them, and they acknowledged her concerns.

"I have spoken with the member of Tautoko about her conversation with Ms Hill," Ms Fyfe wrote.

"She is deeply sorry that their conversation has caused such distress, and has offered her profound apologies.

"We have offered to Anne that the member would like to apologise to her directly, but only if Anne wishes that to occur."

Ms Hill rejected any apology without real change, and without the Church addressing the deep betrayal of Māori by Father Shirres and those who covered up for him.

"To some extent, I see Ms Davis as a victim, and that is probably why I'm so upset," she said.

"Here is the first Māori woman I speak to about this issue. And she's actually responding like a victim - I recognise it; we used to think about it as thinking that we were so lucky that that Pa Shirres loved us."

A Royal Commission spokesperson said it had no say in who the Church appointed to Te Ropu.

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