Arsonists sought in connection with fires at three Australian parishes

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Australian police are searching for an arsonist following suspicious fires at three Melbourne area churches with links to clerical sexual abuse.

Three blazes broke out in as many days, beginning in the suburb of Brighton with St. James Church, which was almost destroyed Monday. The church is included on the Australian National Heritage List.

St. Mary Church in St. Kilda East sustained minor damage from a fire believed to have been deliberately set around the same time.

The third incident was reported early Wednesday at St. Mary Church in Dandenong, where firefighters discovered separate fires at the altar and in a storeroom containing vestments. The church sustained more than $190,000 in damage, the fire department reported.

"At this stage, the fires are being investigated by the local crime investigation units," said Sgt. Kris Hamilton, Victoria Police spokesman.

Detectives are looking at the possibility that the three incidents may be linked, he said.

While a report from the Melbourne archdiocese on Wednesday acknowledged "speculation that the three fires are linked" and that the incidents are "being treated as suspicious by the police," a spokesman said it was "best not to speculate" on the matter.

"We would like to do what we can to allow the police to get on with their jobs," the archdiocese's Shane Healy said.

The blazes have disrupted Holy Week celebrations in the Dandenong and Brighton parishes.

In an interview with a local radio station, Auxiliary Bishop Peter Elliot of Melbourne confirmed the archdiocese was increasing security at its churches, but said he did not believe the fires were linked.

"There have been fires in the recent past that haven't had these links that are being alleged at the moment, not even the link of historical buildings," he said.

"I don't see any pattern so far, except a very disturbed person."

Two priests accused of child sexual abuse served at the parishes where the fires occurred.

Fr. Ronald Pickering, who went to his native England in 1993 to flee an investigation into alleged sexual abuse of young boys, at one time served at the Brighton and St. Kilda parishes.

In 2002, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne confirmed that Pickering had left a parish in Greenvale for England "without warning or notice." He also said the archdiocese's Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse had upheld victim complaints of sexual abuse by the priest.

Pickering died in England in 2012.

A former Dandenong parish priest, Fr. Kevin O'Donnell, was labeled "one of Australia's most notorious pedophile priests" by the victim advocacy group Broken Rites. He was jailed in 1995 after pleading guilty to child sex crimes spanning more than 30 years. He was released in 1996 and died in March 1997.

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