A Special Commission of Inquiry into the alleged cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Hunter Region has determined that several senior Catholic clergy deliberately mislead investigations and were unreliable, unsatisfactory and untruthful witnesses.
Click here for a video statement from Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy:
It has also determined that the police detective who instigated the commission had ‘‘exaggerated’’ evidence, had been ‘‘deliberately untruthful’’, illegally shared sensitive information with a journalist and had developed an ‘‘obsession about the Catholic church and alleged conspiracies involving senior police’’.
Commissioner Margaret Cunneen SC on Friday handed her long-awaited report to the NSW Governor. Three of four volumes have today been made public, with the fourth remaining confidential.
The Newcastle Herald understands that the confidential volume contains findings that may lead to criminal charges being laid against a senior Catholic church official.
Of the confidential file now in the hands of the government, Ms Cunneen reports: ‘‘Significant matters relating to (the crimes of Father James) Fletcher are dealt with in the confidential volume of this report in order to protect potential future criminal proceedings.
‘‘In this respect, the Commission finds that there is sufficient evidence warranting the prosecution of a senior church official in connection with the concealment of child sexual abuse relating to Fletcher.’’
Ms Cunneen concluded that both Monsignor Allan Hart and Father William Burston had been ‘‘unimpressive’’ witnesses. Monsignor Hart, she found, was ‘‘unsatisfactory’’ and gave inconsistent evidence about what he knew in regards to the sexual abuse performed by Father Denis McAlinden.
‘‘Contrary to the real state of affairs,’’ Ms Cunneen reported, Monsignor Hart said he had limited knowledge of McAlinden’s abuse. His role was in fact central to McAlinden being relocated by the church to the United Kingdom when reports of his abuse surfaced.
In regards to Father Burston, the commission formed the view ‘‘there was a reluctance on his part to fully consider questions put to him or to explore his memory for information that might assist the commission’’.
The report also painted a very dim view of police resources that were available to investigate allegations of cover-ups. Several senior police gave conflicting evidence, Ms Cunneen found, but there was no evidence to support claims that a ‘‘Catholic mafia’’ existed within police ranks that had aided the covering up of child sexual abuse by senior Catholic clergy.
To this extent, the commission found that detective chief inspector Peter Fox’s claims were ‘‘wholly unfounded’’.
‘‘It was to Fox’s discredit that he sought to maintain such claims in evidence before the commission,’’ Ms Cunneen reported.
Claims that Mr Fox had made about the competency and experience of several officers appointed to a police strikeforce were ‘‘unwarranted’’, while he was ‘‘also prone to exaggerate aspects of his evidence’’.
‘‘The commission formed the view that Fox had developed what amounted to an obsession about both the Catholic church and alleged conspiracies involving senior police,’’ Ms Cunneen found.
Mr Fox had conducted his own ‘‘clandestine investigation’’ and had wrongly shared sensitive information with Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy. That information was not published at the time.
The two-pronged inquiry before Commissioner Margaret Cunneen SC, was charged with determining if senior police interfered with investigations of abuse centred on the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese, and whether or not church figures concealed offences.
The two-pronged inquiry held several months of public hearings in Newcastle last year, while much of the evidence presented by victims was held in private, confidential hearings.
Detective chief inspector Peter Fox, who is currently overseas, has vigorously defended himself and his actions, saying he would ‘‘walk the same path’’ if such matters came before him again.
In an exclusive interview with the Newcastle Herald, Mr Fox took a swipe at the special commission, suggesting much of his evidence had been distorted. He suggested that the commission served more as a witch hunt against him than an investigation into the cover-up of child sexual abuse.
He said he was made to feel more like a ‘‘criminal on trial’’ than a witness, and that the commission was essentially superfluous given the Royal Commission later announced by then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
‘‘Much of my original submission was redacted with instruction from the Special Commission not to raise certain matters at the public hearings,’’ Mr Fox said.
‘‘I understood and accepted some was for legitimate legal reasons, but most I am still unable to fathom as it obscured important aspects of evidence.
‘‘I am saddened by the process and findings, but do not shy away from my comments of 2012. Throughout the Special Commission I felt more like a criminal on trial than a witness.’’
Mr Fox also revealed that he had been threatened and harassed throughout the inquiry by a former police officer.
‘‘During the hearings my wife and I were subjected to intimidation and harassment within and outside the court,’’ he said.
‘‘Threats of physical violence resulted in a local court issuing a personal violence order to protect us, the offender being an ex-police officer and associate of senior police present at the hearings.
‘‘The Special Commission knew I was receiving treatment for stress before subjecting me to a final day of five-and-a-half hours of cross examination ending at 7pm.
‘‘That final onslaught left me mentally and physically broken.’’
Victims’ rights groups have also backed Mr Fox, although he told the Herald he feels uncomfortable with being regarded as whistleblower.
‘‘I’d like to say I am not comfortable with the term whistleblower,’’ he said. ‘‘I never have been. I don’t think many who speak out are. History has shown many whistleblowers do not survive the reprisals and smears of those they sought to expose. My journey has been no different.
‘‘Nevertheless, I would not hesitate to walk the same path.’’
On Friday afternoon, Premier Mike Baird thanked Ms Cunneen for her inquiry.
‘‘The NSW Government will consider the commission’s report and respond in more detail in due course,’’ Mr Baird said.
In a statement issued by the commission, Ms Cunneen expressed thoughts for the victims of fathers McAlinden and James Fletcher.
‘‘The Commissioner, Margaret Cunneen SC, expressed her particular gratitude to the victims and family members who contributed to the work of the commission,’’ the statement said.
‘‘Victims, often appropriately called survivors, and family members have contributed enormously to the work of the commission. I will be forever grateful for their assistance and their willingness to let their voices be heard.’’
Ms Cunneen added that she hoped their engagement with the commission would ‘‘in some way help in the process of healing and in releasing the ‘guilt collar’ that some victims spoke of.
‘‘No shame attaches to the victims,’’ Ms Cunneen said. ‘‘It squarely belongs with the perpetrators of the abuse, and those who concealed their abhorrent crimes.’’
The Herald has sought comment from NSW Police and the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese.
More to come on Friday at theherald.com.au, with full coverage in Saturday's Newcastle Herald.