THE Police Association of NSW has welcomed the findings of the Special Commission of Inquiry, saying it vindicated Hunter police and the force’s integrity.
Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione and Police Minister Stuart Ayres are yet to comment on the report handed down by commissioner Margaret Cunneen on Friday, but association president Scott Weber offered his support to police yesterday.
‘‘The Police Association of NSW is pleased that the special commission has found that officers tasked to investigate the allegations of child sexual abuse allegations in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle have been totally vindicated and their integrity remains intact,’’ Mr Weber said.
‘‘In our view their honesty was never in question and they continue to do a great job protecting the most vulnerable in our society.
‘‘This inquiry and the royal commission set up by the Commonwealth government will ensure that as a community, we can get at the truth, that perpetrators are brought to justice and the rights of victims are respected.’’
Ms Cunneen’s final report found no evidence to support claims by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox that a ‘‘Catholic mafia’’ existed within local police ranks, or any evidence which supported his claims that he had been wrongly removed from investigating claims of abuse cover-ups within the Catholic church.
Ms Cunneen found Detective Fox to be an unreliable witness who had become ‘‘obsessed’’ with his own probe of the diocese, and had at times been ‘‘deliberately untruthful’’ and prone to exaggeration.
More than 20 police gave evidence to the inquiry, including the region’s most senior officers. In the whole, Ms Cunneen accepted their evidence as truthful, barring several minor irregularities. Of note, Ms Cunneen found no evidence that the strike force set up to investigate claims that senior Catholic clergy had covered up cases of sexual abuse was the ‘‘sham’’ Detective Fox said it was, nor was it designed to fail.
She did, however, conclude that ‘‘unfortunate’’ delays to the probes were caused by a chronic shortage of police resources, particularly in the Lake Macquarie region.
Detective Inspector Dave Waddell was justified, the commissioner said, in pushing for Strike Force Lantle to be run by Newcastle police instead of those in Lake Macquarie.
It was also true that the strike force was at one stage reduced to having no investigating officers – something that was well-documented in the Newcastle Herald – but police could not have anticipated all three detectives taking extended sick leave at the same time.
Peter Fox had also claimed his office was wrongly raided by officers while on holidays, but the commission found Superintendent Charles Haggett, Detective Fox’s superior, had every right to do so.
Ms Cunneen also accepted evidence from former police commander Max Mitchell and Assistant Commissioner Carlene York that they were right to exclude Detective Fox from Strike Force Lantle. Mr Mitchell, was also right to warn Detective Fox against speaking of police investigations to the media, including Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy.
The commission found that Detective Fox had wrongly shared some information with Ms McCarthy, but ‘‘McCarthy provided important assistance to police in respect of the investigation that became Strike Force Lantle’’.
‘‘The evidence suggests that McCarthy was generally determined to provide to police as much information as possible so as to assist with the investigation of the Church concealment of allegations,’’ the commission reported.
* ‘‘The commission finds no credible evidence to support the notion that there are senior police in the Northern Region of NSW Police Force (a so-called Catholic mafia) who are prepared to take steps to try to ensure that alleged child abuse offences involving Catholic officials are not investigated or not properly investigated.’’ ‘‘The commission regards the notion...suggested by Peter Fox as a fiction... that lacks any support in the evidence.’’
* Assertions made by Fox that Strikeforce Lantle was a ‘‘sham’’ and ‘‘set up to fail’’ were ‘‘unfounded’’, the commission ruled. Detective sergeant Kirren Steel and detective sergeant Jeff Little were appropriately qualified to lead Strikeforce Lantle.
* ‘‘Former police officer turned MP Troy Grant was an impressive and credible witness. The commission accepts his evidence that he did not encounter interference by police...and that he did not use the term ‘catholic mafia’ when speaking to Fox. The commission rejects Fox’s evidence to the contrary.’’ Further, the commission found that Fox, in a number of conversations with victim AJ, ‘‘did us the term ‘Catholic police mafia’.’’
* ‘‘Detective sergeant Kristi Faber gave evidence in a careful and considered manner. The commission prefers the evidence of Faber to that of Fox...and accepts Faber’s evidence that Fox appeared obsessed with Maitland-Newcastle diocese.’’
* ‘‘The commission is satisfied that it was appropriate for (former police commander) Max Mitchell and assistant commissioner Carlene York not to put Fox on the Strike Force Lantle team.
* ‘‘It was appropriate for Mitchell to instruct all officers, including Fox, not to speak to media about their investigations.’’
* Four months elapsed between the time Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy provided the church concealment documents to Lake Macquarie police and a subsequent decision to allocate the investigation to Newcastle police. ‘‘Given the gravity of the allegations...in ideal conditions the preliminary steps towards an investigation would have been attended to more promptly. The commission accepts that Northern Region was subject to serious resourcing and staffing constraints in 2010. The church concealment allegations raised very serious concerns that needed to be investigated. Nevertheless, they did not raise matters of utmost urgency (because) they were largely historical in nature and the main perpetrators were dead.’’
* Detective inspector Dave Waddell was justified in his stance that Lake Macquarie police could not take on the investigation of material presented by journalist Joanne McCarthy alleging church concealment allegations. The LAC had two major strike forces already under way and was ‘‘experiencing serious staffing and welfare difficulties’’.
* ‘‘The decision to remove detective Shaun McLeod from the child sexual assault investigations at Lake Macquarie LAC was motivated by genuinely held concerns about his welfare...the decision was not taken with a view to shutting down any investigation of alleged concealment of offences by church officials.’’
* The commission said that detective chief inspector Wayne Humphrey had sought to distance himself from the idea he was instrumental in a decision to search Fox’s office while he was on holidays, and changed his evidence. ‘‘The change in Humphrey’s evidence... raises a question about the broader reliability of his evidence.’’ Nevertheless, the commission also found that superintendent Charles Haggett, as Fox’s superior, ‘‘was entitled to look for such documents’’.
* ‘‘The difficulties and delays...in taking a completed statement from victim AL were unfortunate... (but they did not) reflect in any way a lack of commitment to the Strike Force Lantle investigation.’’
* In December 2010, the strike force was attracting ‘‘negative publicity’’ in the Newcastle Herald because all three detectives assigned to it had taken sick leave. The commission ruled that the matter ‘‘deserved close scrutiny’’, but the sick leave ‘‘was something senior police could not reasonably have anticipated’’.
* The commission accepted the evidence of all other serving police officers who gave evidence to the commission, not named above, as truthful and acceptable.