POLL: Widening sex abuse inquiry

A SPECIAL Commission of Inquiry will examine whether senior police interfered with investigations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy in the Hunter and whether church officials covered up the crimes.

Premier Barry O’Farrell announced the inquiry yesterday   in response to the concerns of Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, who  spoke  out in the  Newcastle Herald  and wrote to Mr O’Farrell this week about the need for a royal commission into the church’s handling of abuse.

‘‘What I’m doing today is what the NSW Premier should do,’’ Mr O’Farrell said.

‘‘Allegations have been raised by a senior police officer. They go to whether or not matters involving paedophile priests in the Hunter have been properly investigated, whether those investigations have been interfered with by senior police or by members of the Catholic Church.’’

To read Joanne McCarthy's comment on why the crisis within the Catholic Church must be the focus,  click here

The Premier emphasised he had full confidence in the intergrity of police officers and  Commissioner Andrew Scipione, whom he described as ‘‘perfectly relaxed’’ about the inquiry. Mr O’Farrell has previously said a royal commission was not appropriate, as current police investigations into abuse allegations could be jeopardised.

He reiterated the concern yesterday but said Mr Fox had raised ‘‘serious matters’’ that warranted investigation.

‘‘What I’m determined to do is ensure that those who have robbed young children of their futures are brought to justice,’’ Mr O’Farrell said.

‘‘And what I’m determined to do is undertake that activity in a way that doesn’t interfere with the ongoing police investigations into recent and historic alleged paedophile incidents across NSW.’’

The state’s Deputy Crown Prosecutor, Margaret Cunneen SC,  will head the inquiry, which would have the powers of a royal commission.

Mr O’Farrell said he would discuss with Ms Cunneen the terms of reference, which could be broadened from his draft if she thought it necessary. They would also discuss whether public hearings would take place.

‘‘The assumption is that those Catholic Church activities were from the Hunter region,’’ Mr O’Farrell said.

‘‘But if they’re not, clearly in relation to the issues that Peter Fox has raised, I’d like to see them investigated.’’

Mr O’Farrell said he spoke to Police Minister Mike Gallacher and Attorney-General Greg Smith before deciding on a Special Commission of Inquiry as the best avenue to consider the matters.

He said a broader inquiry into abuse was not yet appropriate as ‘‘I think it’s best to pursue the evidence’’.

Asked why the government had responded with the inquiry yesterday despite Mr Fox first raising his concerns at a  Shine The Light forum, hosted by the  Herald   in September, Mr O’Farrell said he was unaware of Mr Fox’s concerns prior to Thursday.

That was when he was made aware of the Herald report of Mr Fox’s letter to him then a national TV interview that night with Mr Fox.

Mr Fox told the forum in  September that it was wrong for the Premier to have previously said the police force had ‘‘it all under control’’.

Greens MP David Shoebridge yesterday labelled the inquiry ‘‘half-baked’’ and said the focus ‘‘needs to be the church not the police’’.

Mr Shoebridge said the Premier ‘‘still doesn’t understand the full extent of the problem’’, describing the inquiry  as ‘‘a decoy’’ and saying it should focus on the church, not the police.

‘‘The crime of sexual abuse of children was not limited to the Hunter and it is just extraordinary that the focus of this inquiry will be the police’s handling of abuse and not the actions of the church,’’ Mr Shoebridge said.

Labor also said it wanted a broader inquiry –  into child abuse across the state.

‘‘The Premier’s announcement today is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t go nearly far enough,’’ opposition leader John Robertson said.

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