Church, police agreed on abuse reporting  

NSW Police and the Catholic Church worked together for years under informal agreements that were in direct conflict with requirements to report child abuse, internal police documents have shown.

The arrangements allowed the church to produce edited abuse reports, carry out investigations and decline to release the results to police without court orders.

When a senior NSW Police officer advised the church in August 2003 that an unsigned memorandum of understanding (MOU) appeared to be ‘‘in direct conflict’’ with legal requirements to report crime, police did not investigate whether the church had failed to report abuse cases.

A year later the church proposed a fresh MOU giving accused clergy and employees effective veto over the release of internal church investigations to police.

The terms of two unsigned memorandums between police and the church were revealed for the first time this week after police documents were released to Greens MP David Shoebridge under freedom-of-information legislation. Catholic Church professional standards executive Michael Salmon said yesterday said that the church ‘‘assumed it [the MOU] was operational’. 

‘‘We were practising the provisions of the MOU  and dealing with the police under those provisions.’’

‘‘We had a line of communications with the police and all indications from the police were that the MOU was approved from their end,’’ Mr Salmon said.

The unsigned 2003 memorandum of understanding raises further questions about a police officer’s appointment between 1998 and 2005 to the church’s Professional Standards Resource Group, which investigated child sex-abuse cases.

The MOU provided that where the church investigated an abuse allegation and possibly obtained admissions from a priest or employee, it would not provide its findings to police without a court order.

“It is clear from these documents that the church decided it would not provide crucial evidence of abuse cases to the NSW Police unless and until they were ordered to do so by a court,’’ Mr Shoebridge said.

“The church’s position was not only a gross breach of its duty to protect children from abuse, it also appears to  have been in direct conflict with its obligations under the Crimes Act to provide this evidence to police.

‘‘Even when the commander of the sex crimes squad raised the prospect of long-standing criminality by the church, it seems that no police resources were allocated to investigating the matter.’’

One month after the NSW Ombudsman began investigating the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations in May 2003 over the church’s handling of Hunter paedophile priest James Fletcher, the commission’s executive director, Michael McDonald, wrote to NSW Police seeking ‘‘confirmation that the unsigned MOU with the police remains in place’’.

In August 2003, NSW Police commander of the child protection and sex crime squad Kim McKay wrote to the commission to say the draft MOU had not been approved by police and was ‘‘not currently in place’’.

The commission was also advised the draft MOU appeared to be ‘‘in direct conflict with the explicit legislative requirement of section 316 of the Crime Act’’, or concealing a serious crime. In July 2004, NSW Police State Crime Command intelligence co-ordinator Wayne Armstrong advised Commander McKay he had ‘‘not been able to identify any direct benefits for NSWP in having an MOU with the Catholic Church [assuming a legally valid MOU could be negotiated]’’.

A month later the commission responded with a fresh draft MOU effectively giving accused clergy or church employees veto over the release of Church investigation material, including ‘‘the accused’s account of events’’. There is no evidence it was adopted by police.

Despite concerns about MOUs with the Catholic Church, by June 2005 police were negotiating a generic MOU for child protection information sharing with the Catholic and Anglican churches, and the NSW Departments of Health and Education.

Mr Shoebridge referred the documents to the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry investigating police and church handling of allegations against Hunter paedophile priests Fletcher and Denis McAlinden, and the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse.

Police Minister Mike Gallacher said “Any allegations of wrong doing should be referred to the relevant integrity body, in this case the Police Integrity Commission.’’