The complete story for the royal commission into institutional child abuse

Part I: From the darkness, the light starts to shine

ALMOST five years have elapsed since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse began its processes in 2013.

Although it has been a truly national inquiry, Newcastle Herald readers will know that a lot of the events that led to the commission took place in this part of the world. Indeed, a lot of the reporting that played a major role in putting pressure on the federal government to commission the inquiry came from the Herald and its Shine the Light campaign spearheaded by Gold Walkley-winning journalist Joanne McCarthy. But the Hunter’s role in the road to the royal commission did not start with Joanne.

It began with another formidable Herald writer, Jeff Corbett, whose reporting of court cases involving now notorious Catholic Hunter paedophiles including Vince Ryan and Jim Fletcher earned the repeated ire of the bishop of the day, Michael Malone.

Writing in October 1997 about the sentencing of Ryan to 11 years in jail, Corbett said: “The file is closed, apparently. But it should not be. The Catholic Church is yet to explain how it is that one of its priests was able to prey on boys while he was transferred from one parish to another.”

After all we have heard from the royal commission, the way the Catholic church shifted its paedophile priests from parish to parish is no longer doubted. But back in the 1990s, these were extremely bold claims to make, even if we were witnessing the first trickle of court cases that would eventually become a flood. Corbett kept on the Maitland-Newcastle diocese’s case for many years, but as perceptively accurate he was, it would take McCarthy – a truly fearless reporter – to crack the story wide open. As she wrote in the opening of a weekend feature in June 2009: “Alleged pedophile priests aren't likely to fall on their swords just because of a little media questioning.”

Tracey Pirona

Tracey Pirona

Early on, McCarthy observed that charges against two Hunter priests, John Denham and Guy Hartcher, had received very little publicity. Still, she said, “the issue of Catholic priests and pedophilia will not go away”.

“While the Maitland-Newcastle diocese has been forced to address it publicly after the prolonged and extremely distressing trials of pedophile priests James Fletcher and Vince Ryan, a Herald investigation this week and discussions with victims and victims' representatives show more needs to be done,” McCarthy wrote.

And more was done.

Working virtually alone, but backed by two editors in Roger Brock and Chad Watson, McCarthy embarked on one of the most determined and long-running investigations that any Australian newspaper – let alone a regional paper – has ever seen.

Working with Watson, they launched the Shine The Light campaign that brought the Herald’s campaign for a royal commission into clear focus.

Over the past decade, McCarthy has written more than 1000 pieces on the subject, building up an unparalleled body of sources, contacts and supporters along the way.

It consumed her life.

By 2012, the ABC’s Lateline program, among other national media outlets, had begun taking an interest in the story, and in November 2012, the NSW government announced a special commission of inquiry after an interview that Hunter police officer Peter Fox – now retired – gave to Lateline.

The commission, chaired by Margaret Cunneen and sitting in Newcastle, had its terms of reference amended three times and its reporting date pushed back twice to May 31, 2014.

McCarthy herself would take the stand in the inquiry, giving evidence both in public hearings and in the closed, in-camera sessions. 

But even before this, McCarthy’s reporting had begun to uncover similar problems within the Newcastle diocese of the Anglican church – events that would see it, along with the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic diocese, receive its own case study hearing as part of the royal commission.

Joanne McCarthy

Joanne McCarthy

Her October 2010 report that a well-known Newcastle priest. Peter Rushton, had been a child abuser for 40 years, was a shock to the Anglican system. It would not be the last shock.

Two months before the NSW commission was announced, more than 400 people packed into Club Panthers Newcastle in September 2012 for a Shine the Light forum calling for a royal commission.

Speaking from the stage, Tracey Pirona, whose husband John had committed suicide earlier in the year, said: ‘‘These men have to pay for what they have done, whether it’s the vile act of what they did or having the knowledge of it and not doing anything about it.’’

Whistle-blowing policeman Peter Fox told the forum he should have spoken out before he did. He did not accept premier Barry O’Farrell’s assertion that “the police force has it all under control”.

The pressure was beginning to build. And we know where it was coming from, because the night that she was rolled as prime minister, Julia Gillard sat down to write a letter to McCarthy, which arrived at her house five days later. In it, Gillard wrote: “‘Joanne, you are a truly remarkable person.

“Thanks in large measure to your persistence and courage, the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry and the federal Royal Commission will bring truth and healing to the victims of horrendous abuse and betrayal.”

 Gillard had announced the federal inquiry shortly after O’Farrell confirmed the much more limited state investigation.

On the eve of the final report from the Royal Commission, Julia Gillard speaks with Joanne McCarthy

Some months earlier, Gillard had visited the Herald while on a trip to the Hunter region.

McCarthy wasn’t in the office. She was attending John Pirona’s funeral.  

Despite those of us who were present pressing the prime minister across the boardroom table, she dismissed our call for a royal commission. But McCarthy, and an increasingly awakened national media, kept reporting.

With a chorus of complaint rising ever louder, Gillard eventually changed her mind, and with historic results.

Part II: A watershed moment as the inquiry hits home

ON Monday, November 12, 2012, the prime minister of the day, Julia Gillard, announced that Australia would have a Royal Commission into the way that organisations across the nation had dealt with allegations of child sexual abuse.

Back then, there were plenty of people arguing that the commission was some sort of Catholic witch hunt but as the Newcastle Herald reported the next day, the investigation was to be “broad-ranging ... into many organisations, religious and secular”.

The longer the commission went on, the more the breadth of its reach – and the breadth of the problem it was set up to tackle – became obvious.

Our November 13 front page said: “News of the royal commission prompted tears of relief and fervent but solemn praise from hundreds of Hunter people whose lives have been blighted by sexual abuse and by subsequent cover-ups and callous response from those who should have acted to protect them and to punish their original tormentors. 

The Newcastle Herald, which has fought a long and often lonely battle to give voice to the victims of priests and others who disgracefully misused their power, welcomes the prime minster’s announcement. 

BUILDING THE PRESSURE: More than 400 people attended the Shine the Light forum in Newcastle in 2012 to call for a royal commission.

BUILDING THE PRESSURE: More than 400 people attended the Shine the Light forum in Newcastle in 2012 to call for a royal commission.

This newspaper, through its Shine the Light campaign, has stood beside those who have suffered and been denied, and will do all in its power to ensure that the truth is told and that justice is done. At last.”

Almost the first thing the commission did when it held its first sitting, in Victoria, on April 3, 2013, was to say it was “unlikely” the commission could meet the government’s reporting deadline of June 30 the next year. As the scale of the commission’s work became evident, its terms of reference were amended, giving it until December 15, 2017, to provide its report and recommendations to the Governor-General.

In that first sitting, the commission said it welcomed the response from the Catholic Church, “which has repeated on a number of occasions, that it will fully cooperate with the commission”. And the church did co-operate, handing over countless thousands of pages of documents relating to the various Catholic case studies – including the Hunter’s Maitland-Newcastle diocese – that the commission undertook.

But as our reporting of the time made evident, the recall of various clergy was not always crystal clear. Anything that had a document backing it was able to be remembered: anything that did not have a document tended to be lost to the mists of memory.

The lack of recall was just as widespread on the Anglican side of things, with bishop after bishop unable to remember anything about the string of paedophile priests who prospered under their jurisdictions.

As we wrote on August 30, 2016: “Perth Archbishop Roger Herft has repeatedly told the royal commission he is unable to recall anything about a range of child sexual abuse allegations that documents show were raised with him during his 12 years as bishop of Newcastle from 1993 to 2005.”

The Newcastle hearings – number 42 into the Newcastle Anglicans and 43 into the Maitland-Newcastle Catholics – were watershed moments in the history of both organisations. Held in the newly opened Newcastle courthouse on Hunter Street, we witnessed a cavalcade of lawyers and barristers, priests and public relations minders, as well as abuse survivors and their supporters, making their way cheek-by-jowl through the security screening apparatus at the start of each morning session. 

A lot of the evidence – shocking at first – eventually became as close to banal as such hideous behaviour can be, as outrage after outrage was gone through in forensic detail by the chairman of the commission, Peter McClellan, and his team of counsel assisting.

Despite the official apologies from both Anglican and Catholic churches, victims say – and the commission concurs – that there are still those in the various churches whose attitudes have not changed, and who still side with the priest rather than the victim.

Peter Fox

Peter Fox

As the commission wrote in its concluding remarks to the Newcastle Anglican case study: “We consider that a major shift in understanding and awareness must occur in the diocese if it is to improve its response to child sexual abuse going forward. There is still an attitude in some segments of the diocese that survivors should just ‘move on’. Until that attitude evolves, very little may change in this institution.” 

The commission has handed the Catholic case study to the federal government but recommended it not be made public in order not to prejudice future court proceedings. 

One memorable incident occurred on the third day of that inquiry and involving the current Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, Bill Wright. 

As we reported at the time, Bishop Wright had just delivered what he described as an unreserved apology for the “devastation” wrought by a notorious paedophile priest (who had been convicted before Bishop Wright had moved to the diocese). 

Soon after the apology, while an impact statement written by one of that priest’s victims was being read to the commission, Bishop Wright got up and left the hearing. Followed outside by the Herald, Bishop Wright said he had already read the statement and knew it was to be given by the victim’s solicitor, rather than the man himself. But it was “a fair question” we were asking about his decision not to stay to listen.

One of the most harrowing episodes of the Catholic inquiry involved an examination of the death of Marist Brothers Hamilton student Andrew Nash, who took his own life, aged 13, in 1974.

His mother, Audrey Nash, 90, took the stand to say she now believed he killed himself because he had been abused by two of his teachers. Mrs Nash had only recently broken from the church.

“I feel so stupid that I used to fear and revere these people and that I used to respect them and look up to them,” Mrs Nash said.

It is impossible to encapsulate something as complex as this royal commission in a few thousand words.

But as the chief executive of the commission, Philip Reed, said last month: “When we began in 2013, we had no idea just how widespread or prevalent child sexual abuse in institutions was in Australia, or how many people would come forward to share their story. 

“Since then we have held 57 public hearings, where we sat for 444 days and heard evidence of more than 1300 witnesses. Commissioners have also listened to the personal accounts of almost 8000 survivors of child sexual abuse in institutions through 'private sessions'.”

Vince Ryan

Vince Ryan

As widespread as the abuse has turned out to be, the Catholic Church across Australia has accounted for the greatest number of cases overall.

In its June 2017 analysis of Catholic child abuse claims, the commission found that 4444 people had lodged claims against the church.

Of these, 3057 had been paid out between 1980 and 2015, with total payments of $268 million. The average age of first abuse for those seeking compensation was 11.5 years for men and 10.5 years for women. The average time between first abuse and coming forward to claim was 33 years.

The final commission report will add a wealth of information to the huge amount already published. Nobody who has looked at the commission’s work can possibly think that it was not necessary.

Cliche or not, sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant, and a powerful light has finally been shone on a shocking part of this nation’s history.