COMMISSIONER Margaret Cunneen, SC, began proceedings yesterday with, quite possibly, the understatement of the year.
‘‘The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle has had a very troubled history regarding issues of child protection and the sexual abuse of children perpetrated by persons associated with the diocese, including certain priests,’’ she said in her opening address.
She’s right. To this day, almost 20 people associated with the diocese have been convicted, charged or are facing court over child sex abuse allegations.
But this inquiry is not an exercise in proving the guilt of those who she said displayed ‘‘a reprehensible betrayal of faith and trust’’ against ‘‘vulnerable and innocent children’’.
This part of the statewide inquiry has two terms of reference: whether or not detective chief inspector Peter Fox was told to stop investigating the church’s cover-ups of those crimes, and whether or not the church assisted and co-operated with police investigations, or if they in fact colluded to protect members of the church.
A raft of senior officers sat in Newcastle Supreme Court yesterday to hear Mr Fox’s extraordinary testimony. If they were rattled, no one would know it. Cops don’t roll their eyes in court. They don’t fidget, reel back in their seats or make audible groans. That’s usually left to the media contingent.
Police excel in the art of vacant stares, and Peter Fox was on the receiving end of many.
Not that it fazed Peter Fox who appeared confident from the moment he strode, ironically, along Church Street to the supreme court, and took the stand.
His wife sat quietly with friends in the public gallery, as did several victims of predatory priests.
As explosive as Mr Fox’s allegations were, there were no heated exchanges before the commissioner.
The only thing that came close were two brief objections from the solicitor representing Superintendent Charlie Haggart, but they weren’t unexpected given Mr Fox and Mr Haggart haven’t exchanged Christmas cards for quite a while.
Mr Fox gave senior police figures a battering. Charlie Haggart, Brad Tayler, Dave Waddell, Max Mitchell among them. Whether any of them formed part of, or knew of, the sort of ‘‘Catholic Mafia’’ that Mr Fox referred to remains to be seen – each is expected to take the stand over the next two weeks.
Much of Mr Fox’s testimony, too, will need to be substantiated by former colleague Troy Grant and journalist Joanne McCarthy who will give evidence today and tomorrow.
Certainly, if a fraction of Mr Fox’s allegations ring true, then the issue of child sex abuse within the local diocese will sink to unimaginable levels. But this inquiry has a long way to go.