JOANNE MCCARTHY: Fuse lit on abuse bomb

ON November 1, I emailed questions to the office of NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, addressed to him.

I noted the strong Victoria Police submission to the parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse, authorised by Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay, in which police accused the Catholic Church of many things, including moving or protecting clergy offenders.

I listed some of the allegations laid by Victoria Police against the church, and asked Commissioner Scipione, among other things, if he would agree or disagree with the Victoria Police summation.

To cut a long story short, I received a response from the NSW Police sex crimes squad which didn’t answer my questions.

It did bizarrely, and disturbingly, note that while the church’s Towards Healing process had not included ‘‘reporting of matters’’ to police, the Archdiocese of Sydney had recently circulated a document to Catholic secondary schools advising that Towards Healing had been revised to focus on notifying police.

I nearly choked. The NSW Police squad tasked with investigating sex crimes appeared to think it was cause for celebration that the church recognised a connection between the police, crimes and the church’s responsibility to report allegations.

The euphemistic ‘‘reporting of matters’’, rather than a factual ‘‘reporting of criminal allegations’’, also irked.

I sent another email to Mr Scipione’s office saying I was interested – indeed the community would be interested – in the commissioner’s views on whether the NSW Police experience was the same as Victoria’s.

There was silence after that.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox’s appeal to NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell appeared in the Newcastle Herald last Thursday, November 8, along with allegations he had been prevented from investigating the church’s handling of notorious paedophile priest Denis McAlinden.

As I wrote on Saturday, the fuse on the ticking bomb was lit, and Mr O’Farrell responded by announcing a special commission of inquiry to examine whether senior police interfered in investigations, which could lead to a state-wide examination of clergy child sex abuse.

Certainly there are matters worth investigating about how police responded when I gave documents about McAlinden to a detective in April 2010.

Certainly I have evidence of the negative impact on witnesses of early police responses, including a formal complaint from the first witness interviewed.

And certainly senior police and politicians are very well aware that not only did I write about those early concerns in the Herald, but took more formal steps to have those concerns addressed.

Those are issues for the special commission of inquiry to consider, but they absolutely should not be the only ones.

It would be wrong, and an injustice to so many people dealing with the consequences of the church’s crimes, for the first formal government commission of inquiry in Australia on this issue to concentrate on how the police handled a single investigation.

This is about the church. This is about accountability. This is about power – its abuse by the powerful, and how the powerful only stay powerful while people stay silent.

These crimes strike a chord not only because they’re committed by the most powerful, against the least powerful, but because the Catholic Church in particular has appeared to be untouchable until recently. They also strike a chord because it has been individuals who have forced the powerful – politicians, the church – to act, to be called to account.

First and foremost, it’s been victims – survivors – of child sexual assault who have demanded the truth be told about these crimes, rather than the fiction of a few ‘‘bad apple’’ priests.

It’s been their families, like the family of the late John Pirona who committed suicide in July after ‘‘too much pain’’ from being sexually assaulted by a priest as a child. Their extraordinary strength in speaking to the media, in a time of intense grief, did more to ensure that government action was only a matter of time than any other event.

And how awful that it had to come to that.