A prominent Catholic priest and theologian has been exposed as a self-confessed paedophile, who was quietly placed on a sex offenders programme by the church and is suspected of having abused dozens of children for decades.
The Herald can reveal Father Michael Shirres, who had lectured in Māori theology at the University of Auckland and wrote several books on Māori spirituality, confessed to sexually abusing a young girl and is suspected of abusing many other victims.
The Catholic church has confirmed it received five complaints against Shirres and placed him in a programme for sex offenders. Another victim says a therapist told her Shirres admitted to abusing dozens of children.
Shirres was a revered figure within Māori communities in the Far North, where he had visited regularly as a guest speaker since 1973. The priest died of motor neuron disease in October 1997, aged 68.
Among his victims was Annie Hill, 56, a former art teacher at Pompallier College in Whangarei, who received a written apology from the priest for sexually abusing her.
Hill left her job in 1995 after suffering severe panic attacks brought on when she discovered Shirres had been invited to talk at the school. She was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of sexual abuse by the Dominican priest beginning when she was 5 years old.
Hill said she had been haunted by the knowledge she was not the only victim and that many vulnerable Māori children may have suffered a similar fate, given Shirres' unique access to those communities.
"After Shirres apologised in writing for my abuse in 1994, no one from the Dominicans ever discussed offering meaningful pastoral care to others," she told the Herald.
"I definitely asked them to find and help other victims. It was a totally legal response."
Hill, who lives at Whangarei Heads, had been subject to a non-disclosure agreement required as part of a compensation package. The Dominicans had agreed to pay towards Hill's counselling fees in the late 1990s.
However, after recent statements by the Catholic Church that such agreements tended to retraumatise victims, Hill believed it was time to speak out.
Hill said she wrote to a senior Dominican priest in 2016 urging him to seek out other victims. Shortly afterwards the priest eulogised Shirres in a Catholic newspaper for his pioneering work in Māori theology.
"A Christian response to abuse has to be centred on children and victims, identifying them, listening and offering sensitive pastoral and professional care and this has not happened so far," said Hill.
"I would urge anyone damaged by this man to come forward now and get support."
Hill said she believed it was known within church circles as early as 1966 that Shirres was an active child abuser when he returned to Auckland.
Shirres was eventually withdrawn from pastoral ministry in late 1993 and entered into the Safe Network programme to address his predatory behaviour.
However he continued lecturing at the Catholic Institute of Theology and the University of Auckland until May 1994, when he was demoted from priest to religious brother.
The Catholic Bishop for the Auckland Diocese, Pat Dunn, told the Herald that the church had received five complaints in 1993 relating to Shirres' sexual abusing.
However another of Shirres' victims, Auckland woman Marcelle Kiely, said a therapist who had treated her and had coincidentally also worked with Shirres at Safe told her the priest had admitted to dozens of victims.
Kiely, 61, said the therapist, known to the Herald, confided to her in 1994 that Shirres had been requested to unstack chairs, each one to symbolise a victim he must apologise to, during a role play. The priest reportedly lined out "several rows of chairs" across the room.
Dunn said the church had acted appropriately when complaints were made.
"My understanding is that the Dominican Order certainly worked with the complainants after Michael Shirres admitted the abuse," he said.
"I am confident that the Dominican Order would have scrupulously followed whatever advice was given by the Safe Network in 1993."
He said the church did not involve police because it had been the wishes of the victims.
"At that time the policy with historic cases, as distinct from current cases, was to prioritise the wishes of the complainant because we had been advised that some complainants did not want the police involved and would seek help only on condition that the police were not notified.
"Our practice has been to encourage complainants to report such matters to the police, and to offer support in doing this."
In 1994 a report on the abuse suffered by Hill was drawn up and sent to the Dominican Order by a person employed within the Auckland Diocese. It noted points Hill wanted to make to the church, including her sense of betrayal and that Shirres should not continue to hold the mana of the Māori community.
"How can Michael be 'safe' when he still has the Mana of the Māori community," the report read.
"The children of the Māori people will be vulnerable."
Hill recently established the victim support group Abused Catholic Children Education (ACCE) to liaise with Catholic church authorities. She met with Dunn last month to discuss ways the church could better respond to abuse victims and inform its members on the issue.
"If the church wants credibility and to minister to victims it must educate the laity and some priests not to view naming the abuse as an attack on the church," Hill said.
"I want it to do the right thing."
Who was Father Michael Shirres?
• Born July 12, 1929
• Ordained as a Dominican priest in 1954.
• Sent to Canberra, where he became a chaplain at the Australian National University.
• One of his victims, Annie Hill, said she believed it was known within church circles as early as 1966 that Shirres was an active child abuser when he returned to Auckland.
• Began working with Māori communities in 1973, including settlements in the Hokianga and Far North.
• Learned te reo Māori and earned a PhD in Anthropology with his thesis Introduction to Karakia in 1986.
• In partnership with respected Māori theologian Father Henare Tate, Shirres established a Māori Theology Course at the University of Auckland in 1987, where he lectured. (There is no suggestion that Tate was aware of Shirres' abuse.)
• Demoted from priest to brother in 1994 following official complaints of child sex abuse and put on the Safe Network programme.
• Wrote several books, including Te Tangata: the human person, published in 1997.
• Died of Progressive Bulbar Palsy on October 5, 1997.
• Buried at Cape Reinga in the Far North after a tangi at a local marae.
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