Let's loosen the lock on these secrets
by Alan Howe
Herald Sun, Melbourne, May 07, 2012
A double-page opinion article, pages 24 and 25
THE parliamentary inquiry into clerical sex abuse has cast its net too wide. Let's shortcut our way to the nub of this problem.
NEIL Mitchell asked Archbishop Denis Hart the other day how many clergy he had referred to Victoria Police since becoming the leader of Melbourne's Catholics in 2001.
The Archbishop was in 3AW's studios armed with a wad of briefing notes and accompanied by the chief executive of Royce Communications - the new-look Catholic Church. Church lawyers listened in.
The Archbishop was responding to claims on Mitchell's show days earlier by Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton who accused the church of covering up for paedophiles.
"I can't think of a single referral we've had from the Catholic Church in the last couple of years I've been around," said Ashton, sounding frustrated, weary even.
The Archbishop was unable to shed light on the vital issue, despite his sheaf of preparatory notes: "I don't have the statistics on that."
Mitchell also asked Archbishop Hart of how many suicides by victims of abusive priests was he aware.
"I only know about Melbourne," he said. "I am aware of one relating to Gardenvale, to Ronald Pickering, the parish priest who was there who's now dead."
I won't be the only Herald Sun reader surprised to hear the Archbishop recall only one suicide.
Not long ago, in response to a column by me, Archbishop Hart wrote prominently in the Herald Sun of how sorry he was about the evil enacted on Oakleigh's Foster family by their parish priest: "The damage caused to the Foster family by Kevin O'Donnell, followed by the heroin addiction and suicide of Emma and a tragic traffic accident involving Katherine, is a very sad example of human tragedy and suffering."
There you go. Another suicide. That makes two.
Pickering's abuse alone is believed to have led to another four suicides. A couple of days earlier a leaked police report spoke of 40 such suicides by abused young men. For "abused" read "forced sex with minors".
Perhaps the Archbishop's Herald Sun words were prepared by Royce, a public relations outfit specialising in "issues management" and whose clients have included Bonds underwear - its issues are little known - and Vegemite's Cheesybite.
The Archbishop might have written them himself. In any case, he must take responsibility for them.
The church's handling of Emma Foster might be instructive in how it will operate during the coming parliamentary inquiry.
Emma received a letter of apology from then Archbishop George Pell dated August 26, 1998. In it, Archbishop Pell wrote that "on behalf of the Catholic Church and personally, I apologise to you and to those around you for the wrong and hurt you have suffered".
The letter also enclosed a modest offer of compensation to Emma. Archbishop Pell's words, and his offer, were genuine, but the church is a business and employs expensive experts to protect its interests. Like Royce.
In the same envelope, Emma received another letter, dated August 31, 1998. Its tone was different.
Signed by Richard Leder, a respected partner of law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, it contained what, in my opinion, was a threat: The compensation offer provided "a realistic alternative to litigation that will otherwise be strenuously defended".
Archbishop Hart has said that the church will co-operate fully with any inquiry, as it should and must, but he has been in charge only since 2001.
The problems go back generations to times when the church's place in Australia was exalted and unchallenged. It will involve thousands of cases.
The parliamentary committee will soon advertise for submissions from interested parties and individuals - Treasury Place might well be clogged with trucks backing up to drop them off.
While the committee's brief is hopelessly broad, one of the essential issues - across the world - has been the infiltration of the Catholic Church by paedophiles and the manner in which it dealt with complaints of abuse when they emerged.
So, here's a plan to save time and cut to the chase: The committee should subpoena all correspondence between Corrs and the leaders of Melbourne's Catholic diocese, including Peter O'Callaghan, the church's independent commissioner investigating complaints of abuse.
It should subpoena all correspondence between law firm Monahan & Rowell, its senior partner Patrick Monahan, and the various church bodies he has been representing.
It needs the correspondence between the Christian Brothers and the unnamed female private investigator they hired to interview victims of abusive clergy, a perhaps unique intrusion into the course of Victorian justice.
Finally, it must demand access to the "secret archives" of all Victorian Catholic dioceses, described in 1917's The Code of Canon Law and listed as law No.489.
The bishops have the keys.