EDITORIAL: Now ask the right questions

ON the face of it, the ‘‘special commission of inquiry’’ into sex abuse by Catholic clergy, announced yesterday by Premier Barry O’Farrell, sounds like a positive step.

It’s not the royal commission the Herald, its crusading journalist Joanne McCarthy, and the hundreds of people who have backed her efforts have pressed for. 

But some may be placated by the thought that at least the government is agreeing to a high-level inquiry into some of the key issues.

But is it?

Pushed hard by allegations from senior Hunter police officer Peter Fox of cover-ups, obstructive behaviour, and interference in investigations, the government has appointed senior counsel Margaret Cunneen to inquire into the detective’s claims.

The question for Hunter people who want light shone into the dark corners of one of the region’s most important religious institutions is, will the inquiry provide what they want.

That will depend on the terms of reference the government provides, and the danger is that those terms might be too narrow.

Early suggestions from media reports are that the inquiry will focus on proving or disproving Peter Fox’s specific allegations of interference and obstruction of police investigations by police or church figures.

If that was as far as it went, the inquiry might be about no more than the credibility of Peter Fox.

Given the forces aligned against a royal commission into the real issues at the heart of the scandal, that would be an extremely unsatisfactory result.

In recent hours, senior political figures including shadow treasurer Joe Hockey, ALP front-bencher Bill Shorten and Prime Minister Julia Gillard have all argued against any real inquiry.

Mr Hockey opposed a royal commission on the specious grounds that such an inquiry might further traumatise victims. That ignores the fact that the impetus for a royal commission has come directly from victims.

What is traumatising the victims that Mr Hockey and others like him purport to be concerned about is the refusal of authorities to punish those responsible for permitting clergy abuse to span generations.

Unless Mr O’Farrell’s inquiry targets the core questions of who protected whom, and when, and how, it will not be of practical use to those who need answers. 

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