POLICE may have ‘‘condoned’’ or even ‘‘encouraged’’ the Catholic Church withholding information that could have helped catch or convict child sex offenders within clergy ranks, a new inquiry has heard.
Under a procedure of ‘‘blind reporting’’, the Church referred complaints to police without providing the victim’s identity or, in some instances, the abuser’s, and rarely passed on all information collated during its internal investigations.
Police, it appeared, only filed them as information reports and did not investigate, with notorious paedophile Denis McAlinden among those who was the subject of blind reporting, it emerged during the first day of the Police Integrity Commission’s hearings on Monday.
‘‘The simple fact is that the conduct complained of was, in many cases, recognised to be criminal conduct, but, not withstanding this, notification of all relevant information to the police did not take place, and this appears to have been well known to officers of the NSW Police Force,’’ counsel assisting the commission Kristina Stern SC said in her opening address.
The commission is examining the involvement of police officers between 1998 and 2005 in the Church’s Professional Standards Resources Group, which was established under its response to child sex abuse allegations, the Towards Healing protocols, to support the Church’s director of professional standards.
While the complainant was advised to go to the police in a ‘‘small proportion’’ of cases, the ‘‘vast majority’’ were not and the group ‘‘very rarely’’ referred matters to police itself, Ms Stern said.
It would have been ‘‘apparent’’ to a police officer working within the group that Church personnel would have had ‘‘additional information’’ about a case, such as medical reports or corroborating statements taken during its internal investigations.
Whether officers involved did anything in response to ensure criminal conduct was investigated would be considered by the commission, with a key focus on the conduct of Inspector Elizabeth Cullen, who attended the group’s meetings between 1999 and 2005.
The commission heard the ‘‘blind reporting’’ was used when a victim supposedly did not want to go to police.
But Ms Stern said it ‘‘appears to be the case’’ that police may not have looked into whether a complainant had made an informed decision in choosing not to report a matter to police nor that they ensured it was understood that a ‘‘blind report’’ meant the matter would not be formally investigated.
Making complainants choose between dealing with police or Church processes may have been a disincentive for them to make reports, particularly given the Church offered the potential for counselling and compensation.
There was also the ‘‘risk of inaccuracy’’ in blind reporting procedures, with the commission expected to hear of one example where a blind report form was submitted to police indicating a complainant did not want to talk to police about the rape of an 11-year-old girl when they had previously told the Church that they were willing to do so.
In relation to McAlinden, the commission heard on Monday from former professional standards director John Davoren, about complaints he handled from AE and AC – two of the victims of the serial paedophile who is believed to have abused more than 100 young girls over more than four decades, during which he was moved between diocese and overseas.
Mr Davoren acknowledged he had a practice of referring matters to police once Church-appointed assessors had substantiated them.
But in the case of AE, who had raised with the Church in 1999 her abuse as an 11-year-old girl in the 1950s, he said he believed he would have referred the matter to police when the complaint was reported and passed to him.
He told the hearing McAlinden had been defrocked – a term he said the media liked using– but he had returned as a priest because ‘‘some silly bishop’’ hadn’t checked with his previous bishop about McAlinden’s history.
In 2002, AC reported her abuse to the Church, and indicated she would be prepared to use her experience for police to corroborate any other victim’s complaints.
But in his letter noting receipt of her complaint, Mr Davoren said nothing of another victim, AE, having already come forward.
Asked why he didn’t tell AC to go straight to police on that basis, Mr Davoren said his letter was a standard acknowledgement letter and ‘‘we knew the priest [McAlinden] was out of the country and wasn’t a threat to anyone and notifying the NSW Police may not have been that useful anyway’’.
Commissioner Bruce James QC will also consider a draft Memorandum of Understanding between NSW Police and the Catholic Church, which members of the Church believed was in effect but which police had been advised may breach criminal laws.
An initial draft of the memorandum proposed the sharing of information and intelligence but reserved the right of police to interview the victim, although proceedings would not be instituted against an offender where the victim did not want that to occur.
A later version said the Professional Services Reference Group would not disclose a complaint's name to police where they did not wish to go to police themselves.
Legal advice to NSW Police warned in 2003 that the memorandum had not been adopted, that it would be inconsistent with criminal law and would be ‘‘void on the basis of public policy’’, the commission was told.
The hearing continues.