Parliament’s committee is secretive, evasive and doing the minimum it can get away with.
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Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
IT SEEMS the parliamentary inquiry into the churches’ handling of clergy sex abuse has learnt at least one thing from submissions about the Catholic Church: how to operate in as much secrecy as it can manage while apparently doing the minimum it can get away with.
Its public examination in the two hearings – one a half day – it has managed since the inquiry was called in April is not even a once-over lightly, it is a hovercraft floating above the surface: shallow, short, shocking.
The longer this inquiry goes on – or rather doesn’t really go on – the more questions arise. But they hang in a vacuum, because the committee chaired by Georgie Crozier will not even explain why it won’t explain. In this deliberately engineered information vacuum, it is hard to work out whether this is sinister, or incompetent or merely bureaucratic.
It is not only the media (the bridge to the community) being kept in the dark. Unforgivably, it is also the victims whose hopes were so high and who have so much to lose, but have no idea whether they will be allowed to give evidence, and if so when. Uncertainty adds to their trauma.
The Age has put a score of questions to the inquiry over time. We always get a response, but seldom an answer.
Why are there only three full days of hearings and three half days out of 23 available to the end of November? When will the next hearings be? Why doesn’t the committee publish in reasonable time who will appear? (Several witnesses have told me their appointed times weeks in advance, but the community gets paltry notice. On Tuesday, Friday’s witnesses had yet to be announced. Why?) Will all the witnesses who want to give evidence be called? If not, who will be and on what basis will they be chosen? When will the witnesses be told? Why has the committee put on its website a bare fraction of submissions?
Each question gets a response, but bland and deliberately uninformative. Generic reply: the committee is thinking about it; it’s too early to say. These are mostly simple questions of procedure. What is the need for secrecy? The committee has been asked that – it won’t say.
Victims advocate Bryan Keon-Cohen, QC, has pointed out how essential it is to get documents from the Catholic Church, without which the committee will be deflected by ”bullshit motherhood statements from sophisticated church spokesmen”. Will it demand them? Answer: a parliamentary committee has such power but it is rarely exercised. Another evasion. This may be a litmus test of how serious the committee is.
Another litmus test was the response to the explosive testimony of Victoria Police, reflecting its frustration and anger at the Catholic Church, which it claimed hindered them, obfuscated and even alerted priests that they were under investigation. The police received half an hour of polite questions in the most general terms. If this is all, it’s woefully inadequate.
Victims have waited so long for this inquiry. They wanted a proper judicial inquiry – as did almost everyone except the government and the Catholic Church. But this is what they have been given, and they have to pin their hopes to it.
They must be heard. And their accounts must be investigated. As I’ve implored before, the committee has to dig forensically into the evidence and check the stories.
Who did what and when, who knew what and when, and how did they respond? What do the documents show? Why has the church never reported a single perpetrator to civil authorities? Anything less is a travesty.
The suspicion is unavoidable that this inquiry is of such limited ambition that it might even do more harm than good. The committee cannot do what victims and the community expect but is scared to say so.
In power, Labor did nothing for 11 years, despite repeated lobbying from victims and the media. The Coalition seemed to have the same intention, but ran out of evasions after the Cummins report unequivocally recommended an inquiry, followed on Friday, April 13, by the revelation of 35 suicide victims (now known to be at least 50) from one paedophile ring in Ballarat alone.
On Monday, April 16, at 2.30pm, Premier Ted Baillieu finally announced an inquiry.
He reportedly told the family and community development committee at 2pm the same day that they would be running it, apparently unaware that they already had two inquiries on the go. That committee’s deputy chairman, Labor’s Frank McGuire, said at the time he felt a judicial inquiry would be better. Once matters were sealed he had to follow parliamentary solidarity, but his misgivings have proved well placed.
The one thing that gave this inquiry credibility was the appointment of former judge Frank Vincent as legal adviser, but we do not know how active his role is.
The Age has not been allowed to speak to him either, or police adviser Mal Hyde. Attorney-General Robert Clark promised the inquiry would be adequately resourced, but this seems not to be so.
Victim’s advocates have suggested to me that among the priorities for chairwoman Georgie Crozier is one the government feels acutely – the need not to embarrass it.
Meanwhile, it is not too cynical to suggest that the reason Crozier refuses to speak to the media or release any details is because the committee is doing such a shallow job, it has to ensure that the public does not find out. It is certainly not going to report on time.
In opening the public hearings, Crozier emphasised that the parliamentary committee had powers quite as broad as a royal commission. Maybe, but powers mean nothing if they are not exercised. The committee has a public duty, and it seems to be abdicating it. Bring on the royal commission.
Barney Zwartz is religion editor.