Greens MP mistrusts Church’s inquiry into sexual abuse

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ABC News Australia

Updated  July 31, 2012 18:14:00

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge says he mistrusts the Catholic Church’s internal inquiry into Denis McAlinden and the incidents in the Armidale dioceses. David Shoebridge has tabled a number of the documents surrounding the church’s handling of the McAlinden case in Parliament.
Tim Palmer

Transcript

TIM PALMER: One of the most senior Catholic churchmen in the country, the now Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson, had the carriage of much of the McAlinden investigation, but according to newspaper reports he has now refused a formal interview with police.

New South Wales Greens MP David Shoebridge says that’s yet another reason to mistrust the internal inquiry the Church has already announced into incidents in the Armidale Dioceses.

David Shoebridge tabled a number of the documents surrounding the Church’s handling of the McAlinden case in Parliament and says only a Royal Commission will satisfy victims.

A short time ago I asked him how he’d characterise the Church’s investigation.

DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Well on the material I’ve seen it’s clear that the Church was well aware of serial sexual offences by this priest and failed to report it to the police for at least eight years. I mean it’s an extraordinary example of systemic institutional failure by the Church.

TIM PALMER: You talk about the material that you’ve seen, some of which you have tabled in Parliament. It’s normally incredibly difficult to access Church records on their abuse investigations so how did these documents emerge?

DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Well this is one of the rare examples where documents seem to have been created by the Church because they wanted to rapidly effectively defrock this priest. They were concerned that the media and police would become aware of the matter and they were looking for, if you like, a fast exit for the priest. In any event, the priest didn’t cooperate and he remained a priest for many years thereafter.

TIM PALMER: So essentially this was the Church’s prosecution case being built to defrock this priest?

DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Exactly. This was the Church’s application under canon law to try and defrock the priest, to get a prosecution case together under canon law to have the priest removed.

When the priest failed to cooperate with that it appears that nothing more was done and there’s this quite remarkable delay, they have sworn documents, they have very clear, indeed compelling, evidence of serial sexual abuse and when the priest doesn’t cooperate they just let it go cold.

TIM PALMER: Well those actions, which are being examined by police now with the work of some of the Church’s most senior figures, what does that suggest about whether this delay in notifying police, eight years as you say, was just an aberration or something more typical?

DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: The more you look at the Church’s conduct the more – it’s becoming exposed in dribs and drabs – it’s very clear that this isn’t an isolated case. We have many, many cases of priests being renowned and known for sexual abuse, being moved from diocese to diocese, being moved from church to church, inquiries being done internally and then a failure to follow up and report it to the police.

It goes to show that the Church is incapable of handling these matters themselves and is a yet more compelling reason for an external, independent, Royal Commission.

TIM PALMER: These documents would suggest that Father Brian Lucas, who at the time was pretty much the public face of the Catholic Church in Australia, heard some admissions from Father McAlindon in this investigation.

Six months after the letter to McAlindon that said a speedy resolution might see him avoid police involvement Father Brian Lucas appeared at the Police Royal Commission and he was at pains to say the Church’s protocol had changed and no longer tolerated exactly that sort of thing. What do you make of that?

DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: The lack of clarity, the lack of certainty, the lack of real action by the Church, and indeed at times quite contradictory comments that senior Church leaders have made about cooperation by the Church with prosecutorial authorities, I think is yet more grist to the mill for the state to step in. The state to say through the Premier, through the establishment of a Royal Commission, that we’re not satisfied with how the Church has handled this matter, the people of New South Wales require its government to step in and establish that Royal Commission.

I’ve got to say, this should be a non-partisan matter, this should be something that, regardless of your political colours, the protection of our children, the prosecution of the crime of sexual assault of children, should be blind to politics and I’m surprised how few politicians have come out and sought a Royal Commission.

TIM PALMER: Father Lucas at that time did say that it was a real dilemma for churchmen if they were approached by someone who didn’t want the matter to go to police. But was there any suggestion in this case that the victims didn’t want the Church to refer it to the police?

DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: There should be no dilemma when a person in authority is given evidence of a crime being committed against a child. In fact it’s a criminal offence for people not to report to police evidence that they have of an indictable offence.

There’s no dilemma here, there’s a simple, absolute obligation to protect children, particularly children who have been put into the care of an institution by the Church and I find any suggestion otherwise deeply offensive.

Not just that child requires protection, but the failure to report exposes other children to the risk of further sexual abuse and it’s those systemic failures the Church really has to answer.

TIM PALMER: If Archbishop Philip Wilson, who had the oversight of this investigation for some time, has told police that he doesn’t want to be formally interviewed, obviously that’s his legal right, but what do you make of that?

DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Well the difficulty for the Church is we’ve had Cardinal Pell come out and say that the Church would continue to cooperate with police and with any investigating authorities. We now see in this particular case a very senior member of the Church not cooperating with police. Now of course, that’s his legal right.

But if the ultimate defence the Church has against a Royal Commission is that they’re fully cooperating, well the failure of a very senior member of the Church to do just that, to cooperate with police, to give a statement, to tell their side of the story, is a simple and strong piece of evidence that supports the state intervening, not leaving it up to the Church to do this itself.

TIM PALMER: Well the Catholic Church has already set up an inquiry, would it be enough for the Church to simply add this to that brief?

DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: It is absolutely remarkable that the institution that itself failed children, that members of which itself clearly committed crimes against children, is being allowed by state and federal governments to do its own inquiries into its failings. If this was any other institution apart from the Catholic Church no-one would even think of standing for that for an instance.

An independent council is far from sufficient. Any inquiry needs the powers of a Royal Commission. It needs to be able to compel evidence. It needs to hold public hearings where appropriate.

It needs to have effectively the subpoena powers to compulsorily acquire documents and an internal inquiry by the Church doesn’t have those powers, will never have those powers, and it’s particularly concerning when we see the Church failing to cooperate with police investigation.

Now what confidence can victims and their families have that the Church will then cooperate with an internal inquiry when that inquiry does not have the powers of a Royal Commission?

No-one can be satisfied, no victims, none of their families can be satisfied with an internal inquiry without the powers of a Royal Commission.

TIM PALMER: NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge.

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