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Issue #1576      5 December 2012

Child sex inquiry beset by thorny problems

The enormity of the task before the child sex abuse royal commission is becoming clearer by the day. Decades of criminal acts and cover-up are not going to be exposed and considered quickly or easily. Commissioners on the royal commission announced by Prime Minister Gillard will have to confront thorny questions of the meddling power and influence of large religious organisations like the Catholic Church in modern-day Australia. Lawyers and insurers are moving to protect their clients as thousands of victims prepare to recount their harrowing experiences in the care of once-trusted institutions.

A week set aside for public comment on the proposed terms of reference has concluded. Attorney-General Nicola Roxon received 33 formal and 270 email responses. Many complained that the time allowed for submissions was too short and that the original terms of reference were too restrictive. Ms Roxon would rather the inquiry didn’t emphasise the exposing of past abuse. “Our real focus is to make sure that we can identify what is in our institutions, or our systems, our laws, or our public service … that has made it difficult for people to make complaints,” she said recently. “What might have made it easy for perpetrators to actually commit these offences?”

A continuing stream of media reports suggests that the answers to those questions will be relatively easy to find in the culture of cover-up in the hierarchies of churches and the various state and federal police forces. The real question before the royal commission is not so much “what is it?” but “who was it?”.

For example, who authorised or recommended the transfer of former St John of God (SJOG) brother Bernard McGrath from church-run institutions in the Newcastle-Maitland diocese to be a teacher and dormitory master at the SJOG boarding school at Marylands near Christchurch in New Zealand? He also worked at the Hebron Trust, which is a learning centre for street kids.

In the Newcastle-Maitland diocese McGrath was alleged to have repeatedly raped and molested dozens of young boys in his charge during the 1970s and ’80s. He had 252 abuse charges laid against him in Newcastle on June 27. He finally spent two years in prison in New Zealand following conviction in 2006 for sexually abusing boys in that country.

McGrath is reported to be living in Sri Lanka, which has a reputation as a haven for paedophiles with an annual traffic of prostituted children estimated at between 10,000 and 12,000. Fairfax Media discovered that a formal request for the extradition of McGrath to Australia was only received by New Zealand authorities on November 15. This delay allowed McGrath to flee.

Marist brother Ross Murrin was treated by the Catholic Church’s now defunct Encompass Australasia program for clergy with psycho-sexual problems. He was known to have abused students in Queensland schools during the 1970s and ’80s. It is claimed that the former headmaster of St Augustine’s boarding school in Cairns, Brother Gerald Burns, gave circus tickets to two boys as a result of “all the bother” caused by brother Murrin. Brother Burns was awarded the Order of Australia in 2003 for “services to youth welfare, particularly through the development of the innovative services and programs of Marist Youth Care.”

From 1997 to 2008 Encompass sought to rehabilitate the clergy referred to it but did not meet its legal obligation to report acts of child sexual abuse to the police. A “well-placed source” told Fairfax Media that several of the referred clergy members bragged to others of their exploits. “Some of these people were not mentally ill, in my opinion. They were criminals who knew exactly what they had done and were proud of their achievements,” the source said. “People who should have been in Long Bay Jail were still living in the community.”

The long history of cover-up is embarrassing for church and state authorities and will take a lot of time and care to tease out. It has been suggested that 6 to 10 commissioners examining separate areas of child sex abuse could be required. The inquiry could take so long that the age of judges being considered could be an issue. The federal government will have to step delicately around the question of the religious affiliations of commissioners – the Constitution bans religious tests for public office. It will also have to work with inquiries announced by some state governments and sidestep the lack of interest of others. It looks as thought the Commonwealth will have to foot the entire bill.

Expectations for the outcomes of the royal commission vary throughout the community. The position of the Communist Party was made clear in a recent article demanding prompt justice for the victims. “The Commission should be given all the staff and other resources it requires, the time it needs so that all voices can be heard. At the same time, it should be able to provide interim reports and recommendations for the government and other institutions to act on. In particular, questions of compensation of victims should not be held up.”  

Next article – Call for World Heritage Status for Parramatta Female Factory

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