Thursday, December 30, 2010

Church 'silent' on abuse reforms

MELBOURNE'S Catholic Archdiocese has failed to announce or fully implement changes requested by Victoria Police to the church's sexual abuse inquiry process, more than a year after serious deficiencies were exposed.

The failure has sparked fierce criticism from victim groups and lawyers and comes with police recently launching two separate investigations into sexual abuse involving a serving and a former Victorian priest.

Sources close to the church have said that police have requested it to revamp its inquiry process to ensure that priests under investigation for sexual offences by detectives are not in effect tipped off by the church's chief abuse investigator, Peter O'Callaghan, QC, that they are the subject of a police probe.

Church sources also confirmed to The Age that the police had serious concerns about Mr O'Callaghan's practice of comparing himself to a royal commissioner, despite the fact that he is appointed and paid for by the church.

The sources also said police had called for the establishment of a formal point of contact in the force, after concerns that allegations of sexual assault that should be investigated by police had been confined to the church's inquiry process.

But the revamp of the church's inquiry process has also been slowed by Victoria Police's recent ban on striking memorandums of understanding with private organisations, after controversy about the police's agreements with the AFL and the builders of the desalination plant.

The Melbourne Archdiocese has been consulting with the police throughout the year in the hope of getting formal approval for their process. 

The police's scrapping of all agreements also imperils the 1996 endorsement by the police of the Melbourne Response - the system of inquiring into sexual abuse in the church created by then Melbourne archbishop George Pell.

The changes to Mr O'Callaghan's inquiry process were sought by police after revelations in The Age in August and December last year that he had in effect revealed to two priests that they were the subject of covert police investigations.

One of the priests was later convicted of sexual assault and the other is facing charges.

The tip-offs occurred due to a flaw in Mr O'Callaghan's inquiry process that arose when a police investigation started after Mr O'Callaghan's private inquiry had already begun.

In a move that angered detectives, Mr O'Callaghan informed the suspect priests that they were under police investigation and that he would be stalling his inquiry until the police probe was over.

Mr O'Callaghan's conduct in such cases had the effect of tipping the priests off about the covert police interest.

Lawyer Paul Holdway, who was recently honoured by the Law Institute of Victoria for his work with victims of church sexual abuse, said he was disappointed by the failure of the church to announce what it had done to improve its abuse inquiry process.

''We would have hoped that the church would have responded to the issues by making a public statement and doing a review of the process, which has not been reviewed since 1996, when it was launched,'' he said.

''The system is still impacted by confusion from a victim's point of view on who O'Callaghan is acting for. Another is the appropriateness of the skills of the church staff working with victims.''

Mr Holdway met police examining problems with the church's inquiry process early this year.

Victim advocate Helen Last said some victims had also lost faith in the Melbourne Response.

''Victims want police to have the first go at knowing what the assaults are about and arresting and questioning the alleged perpetrator and conducting their investigation without any contamination by Mr O'Callaghan,'' she said.