Cracking the vows of silence

Members of the small parish were furious. Word had gone around that money from the Christmas collection had been used to help pay the legal costs of a local priest accused of repeatedly raping an altar boy. It was December 2004. Father James Patrick Fletcher, 64, had just been found guilty of multiple counts of anal and oral penetration of ''Desmond'', who was 13 when the attacks had started in 1990 in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese. Fletcher would die one year into his 10-year maximum jail sentence.

But The Newcastle Herald soon began to question how his defence had been financed. According to the victim support group Broken Rites, legal experts had estimated his costs for the 11-day trial, including for the services of a prominent QC, exceeded $200,000. The Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, the Most Reverend Michael Malone, said Fletcher had made use of a ''loan facility''. He also admitted that one local priest had ''donated'' part of the parish's Christmas collection to help pay Fletcher's lawyers. Not that this priest had told his parishioners or sought their permission. It was the secrecy that really angered the faithful.

As Fairfax Media revealed on Friday, at least two Catholic orders - the Christian Brothers and Marist Fathers - have continued to fund the legal defences of clergy as they went to trial for the second, third and even fourth times for the sexual abuse of children. It is the perception that churches have shielded their own - and that even police have turned a blind eye - that largely motivated the Prime Minister this week to announce the biggest inquiry into child abuse in Australia's history.

Only on Tuesday, the Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell, stressed that his archdiocese did not pay for the defence of clergy accused of child abuse. But as Pell also made clear, he is not the boss of the Catholic Church in Australia. He is the nation's only cardinal, making him Australia's most influential Catholic. It gives him moral authority to speak out. But different orders have their own authority.

So spare a thought for the royal commissioner. If it is hard enough to corral the many forces of a single faith, a much bigger task awaits this inquiry. It will not be confined to any creed, institution or demographic quarter. It will cast its net across the nation - over charities, schools, the Scouts, footy clubs, community organisations, state bureaucracies, police forces … All of these, like churches, have their own cultures and hierarchies. If not confessionals, some will have their own unofficial codes of silence - mates who'll protect mates, who'll keep their secrets. ''There have been too many adults who have averted their eyes to the this evil,'' Julia Gillard said.

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efore we get too carried away, Patrick Parkinson is willing to make a bold pronouncement: ''I would say it is now more difficult to sexually abuse a child than at any time in history.''

Parkinson is not one to take this subject lightly. He is the child protection and family law expert who headed two reviews of Towards Healing, the Catholic Church's process for dealing with abuse complaints. He is the one who walked away when the church suppressed his independent report into how the Salesian order moved three priests overseas to avoid police questioning. ''The church had made some very, very clear promises about what it would do,'' Parkinson says. ''It was an invitation to the public to hold the church accountable to those promises. When I tried to do so, I found it extraordinarily difficult.''

He welcomes the royal commission and believes it can make a real difference. But he believes it is important to acknowledge the advances already made in protecting children, and in breaking down the institutional systems that shielded paedophiles from prosecution. ''We've put in a huge effort in the last 20 years and I'm quite convinced that it's paid off.''

There is not a paedophile on every corner, he says, and parents should not be terrified into believing otherwise. ''The royal commission needs to keep this in perspective. It needs to do what it has to do without creating alarm.''

It also needs to manage expectations. ''If people think there will be some sort of investigation of every historic case of child abuse - as if we were conducting a mini-trial into every single one across the country - well, that cannot happen.''

Ireland's commission of inquiry into child abuse ran for almost 10 years. The Aboriginal Deaths in Custody royal commission took more than three years. It investigated every death between January 1, 1980, and May, 31, 1989. But with a starting brief as wide as child abuse across the nation, Australia's royal commission will only succeed, Parkinson warns, if its prime concern is addressing the systemic failures that allow abusers to go on harming children. ''The question is not: was a child abused? We know, sadly, there is a very long history of this. The question is: how has each organisation dealt with it, and has there been a systemic failure?'' Finding those failures will mean forensic investigation of particular cases. The architecture for the inquiry, deciding its terms of reference, will be the key.

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alph Doughty is among many who will have big expectations. He called this week complaining about the headlines. Like Pell, he said: ''It's not all about the Catholics.''

Doughty was an eight-year-old orphan when he entered the Salvation Army's care at the Gill Memorial Boys Home in Goulburn. In 2004, he gave a heart-wrenching submission to a Senate inquiry about the atrocities he witnessed and endured over 10 years - beatings, violent sexual assaults, emotional torture. Doughty is about to turn 80. He left that home in 1951, but don't dare tell him these are historical crimes.

The crimes of silence and cover-up, he says, persist. Since retiring as a master butcher in 2004, he has become a solicitor and barrister. He'll quote you chapter and verse on the Crimes Act and the legal obligation to report knowledge or suspicion of an offence to police - and on police to investigate. The Salvos and police are still failing, he says.

He claims a Salvation Army officer told him in 2007: ''You will all soon be dead. And every day that we can hold out against any one of you and your claims means it is another day closer to that reality, and the Salvation Army keeping the money.'' The officer involved strenuously denies saying any such thing. He was appalled and deeply offended at hearing the allegation, and insisted he and the Salvos had acknowledged Doughty's horrific experience, apologised to him, and shown him compassion. This case is mentioned as an illustration of the challenge facing the royal commission. It will be flooded with submissions. There will be uncorroborated claim and counter-claim. There will be claims of recent abuse, and evidence of assaults dating back to the first half of the 20th century. Where will the commission draw its lines?

Pell wondered this week about opening old wounds. This was galling for victim Mark Fabbro, from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. He says: ''The more the public sees, the more we are understood, and the more empowered we become.''

The disempowered may want a voice at the royal commission. When the rugby league official Les Bateman was sentenced in February to five years' jail for the sexual abuse of a minor 20 years ago, it was predicted other victims would come forward. They haven't - yet. Bateman is a former president of the Chester Hill rugby league team and served as an official with the Canterbury Bulldogs NRL team. In his community, some refused to accept the court's decision. One local who supplied information to Fairfax about Bateman's past said he feared ''retribution''.

The commission will need to prioritise. ''It is important to keep a focus on what's driven this inquiry,'' says Parkinson, ''and that is the allegations of the Victorian police and by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox [in NSW ] of systemic cover-up and discouraging police investigations … Those are enormously serious and need to be thoroughly investigated.''

Like Pell, Parkinson is happy the inquiry will go far beyond one church. But he adds: ''There is undoubtedly one church that stands out from the crowd. That has to be faced. There is no point beating about the bush on that issue.''

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ell didn't beat about the bush when he faced the media this week. He railed against the ''general smearing'' of his church. It reported any suspected abusers, he said. It did not give shelter to paedophile priests by moving them from parish to parish or state to state. It no longer silenced victims with confidentiality clauses attached to financial settlements. ''We have these procedures. We're following them.''

Pell established the ''Melbourne Response'' in 1996, when he was the city's archbishop, to handle complaints of abuse and provide pastoral support. Towards Healing, which operates in every other Australian diocese, began the next year. In the first years of these protocols, confidentiality clauses were commonly part of compensation deals, according to the victims advocate Helen Last, of In Good Faith. "There was a big hue and cry about it after articles in The Age, and archbishops Pell and Hart took full-page ads in The Age and Herald-Sun, apologising to victims and saying they would not put any more silencing clauses in agreements."

However, that only applied to victims who were directly abused. Fairfax Media is aware of several people damaged while fighting to prevent abuse - known as secondary victims - who received compensation on condition of confidentiality. ''Absolutely, the church paid hush money,'' Last said. Two victims of the serial offender the then Father Barry Whelan received large payments, with confidentiality clauses attached. The abuse - including a rape - happened in 2001, after he had been stood down by Archbishop Pell and reinstated by the Vatican.

Last told a Victorian inquiry into child abuse this week that the church had settled about 2000 child abuse claims outside the official protocols - to silence them. Victims with the right connections and understanding, she said, were sent through alternative ''portals'' facilitated by the church. It meant they could get more than the official $75,000 limit on compensation.

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he inquiry in Ireland, a predominantly Catholic nation, led to bold changes. Irish priests now risk jail if they do not report an abusing colleague who reveals his crimes during confession. The Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, castigated the Vatican for attempting to stymie Ireland's inquiries into abuse, and vowed the law of the land would always supersede canon law.

Pell was adamant this week: ''The seal of Confession is inviolable.'' The Catholic politicians Tony Abbott and Barry O'Farrell say it's time that changed. But Pell said: ''I wouldn't anticipate that any [accused] would hide behind the confessional.''

Perhaps times have changed. As a Scout, John Sawyer woke while camping at Mooroolbark in Melbourne's outer east to find himself being masturbated by his scoutmaster. The next day at Mass, he noticed the scoutmaster avoided Communion, but: ''He was back at Communion the next week after he'd had time to be absolved in the confessional.'' Today, 55 years on, Sawyer has forgiven the scoutmaster but not the priests who heard his confession and restored him to a "state of grace" so he could take the Eucharist - and keep offending.

Catholic stories alone could consume years of hearings. But others will be told. Parkinson believes it would be unwise for it to run beyond two or three years. ''And there needs to be wisdom about what I call 'ecologically sustainable child protection'. That means the protection you can maintain three years on from the original enthusiasm.''

In the meantime, he says, moral panic about the extent of child abuse will not help. ''I've been a critic of the airlines for moving unaccompanied minors whenever they are sitting beside a man, for heaven's sake, and some of what goes on in schools, where teachers are told they can never hug a child, even when they've fallen over in the playground … or the dear old lady who helps out in the creche once every two months being asked to go through all sorts of processes, where they really weren't the risk in the first place.''

It's a minefield. The royal commission will need to tread carefully.

with Daniel Lane

The story Cracking the vows of silence first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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