The first Australian priest to be charged with covering up sexual abuse of children by fellow clergy died from cancer on the weekend. His passing is another painful arrow to the hearts of Australians so desperate for justice following years of childhood abuse while in the care of religious institutions.
Father Tom Brennan’s death on Sunday, before he could face trial in regard to allegations of covering up sexual abuse by another priest (as well as allegations of beating children who reported the abuse and abusing a child himself) emphasises with greater urgency the need for a thorough inquiry with Royal Commission powers.
There have been hundreds of victims of sexual abuse in the Newcastle/Maitland area alone. Many of them were present at a very large public meeting on 16 September in Newcastle calling for such an Inquiry. The recent defrocking of three Anglican priests in the same area indicates that while the problem may be widespread in the Catholic Church, it is not confined to it.
At the public meeting, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox told the 400-strong gathering that the Premier was wrong to say the police force had it "all under control". He said a Royal Commission was the only way to properly investigate child abuse in the Church. He said he had to speak out, at risk of his career, because there was much he had been prevented from investigating and much still needing examination. "There is a lot more going on out there than anyone wants to admit," Detective Fox iaid.
Clearly, the suggestion that it should be left to the police force is not accepted as adequate by a senior police officer who has been involved in investigating just these sorts of cases. If he has been prevented from adequate investigation, as he alleges, then the Premier has no basis for denying a proper investigation with Royal Commission type powers.
The Premier, Barry O’Farrell, has given two reasons against holding an inquiry. The first is that we should await the results of the Victorian Legislative Council inquiry. That inquiry is, of course, limited to Victoria. While Victoria has had dozens of suicides from victims, we also know of at least a dozen in New South Wales (tragically one recently in the Newcastle area) and there may be many more of which we are unaware. Giving victims a voice and a feeling that the risk of their abuse being repeated is reduced may in turn reduce the risk of future suicides from victims. For that reason alone, New South Wales needs its own inquiry.
The other reason given by O’Farrell is the suggestion that it might interfere with existing prosecutions. Only one prosecution has been launched in respect of a cover up, and it ended with the death of Father Brennan. A Royal Commission into the systematic covering up of abuse in religious institutions, including schools, is likely to assist rather than hinder police inquiries. In any event, Royal Commissions are adept at ensuring that the evidence, and any report, does not interfere with the prosecution process.
Disclosing the extent of the cover up of systemic child sexual abuse in religious institutions within New South Wales will dimish the likelihood of it occurring in the future and give victims a chance to be heard. Without an inquiry, the Premier risks sharing the blame for future suicides from the many hundreds of known victims.
Internal church investigations have been manifestly inadequate. Tony Whitlam QC has been appointed to examine the failed 1992 church investigation, but able and well intentioned as he is, he cannot succeed, because he cannot compel witnesses or production of documents. Cardinal Pell’s archdiocese "response" puts the primary pressure on the victims to go to the police and does not bind the other 33 dioceses in Australia. Nor does it provide proper compensation for victims in his archdiocese.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance has been calling for a thorough inquiry, into the problem of systemic child sexual abuse in religious institutions for years. It repeats that call now for such an inquiry now and for that inquiry to have full Royal Commission Powers. Too many lives have been lost already.
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