In late 2012, Australia was rocked by fresh allegations of Catholic clergy child sex abuse by whistleblower, New South Wales Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox.
Fox has pursued allegations of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy for more than a decade, and he claims that as his investigations continued, a frightening picture emerged of a widespread cover-up by the Catholic Church of the child sex crimes committed by its clergy.
Fox repeated those claims publicly, and also accused the Catholic Church of deliberately obstructing police investigations, destroying evidence, and protecting paedophile priests, sparking calls for a national inquiry.
At the same time as Fox’s investigation, The Newcastle Herald’s senior journalist Joanne McCarthy, had also picked up the scent of a wider conspiracy by senior church officials to conceal sex abuse by its clergy.
Searching for clues - Joanne delved into the case of Father Vincent Ryan - a paedophile priest convicted in 1996.
Her first discovery was a police record of interview with Monsignor Patrick Cotter, who was Maitland’s acting Bishop in the 1970s.
She was stunned to learn Cotter had known for 20 years that Ryan was a paedophile, and that when it was first reported to him by parents of a victim - he had simply shunted the priest interstate - concealing the issue, rather than reporting it to the police.
She then discovered another bishop’s letter, outlining a plan to cover-up the crimes of one of the most dangerous paedophile priests in the Maitland-Newcastle area, Father Denis McAlinden.
Bishop Leo Clarke wrote to McAlinden with an offer - if he agreed to be laicised or, defrocked as a priest, the church would protect him: "Your good name will be protected by the confidential nature of this process."
At the end of his letter, Bishop Clark urged McAlinden to agree to be defrocked because “some people are threatening seriously to take this whole matter to the police”.
The offer to conceal McAlinden’s crimes was proof of the church’s veil of secrecy and soon Joanne ascertained that the clergy members involved were amongst the most senior in the Australian Catholic church.
Now, a special commission of inquiry has been set-up by the New South Wales state government to determine whether their actions amounted to criminal conduct. The special government-appointed inquiry, known in Australia as a Royal Commission, has also been charged with investigating how the NSW police force handled the complaints.
The trigger for the Royal Commission came in July last year, when John Pirona, a 45-year-old firefighter in the city of Newcastle, ended his life after years of mental torment stemming from the sex abuse that he suffered as a child at teh hands of a paedophile priest.
The abuse occurred at St Pius X High School, a Catholic boys’ school in Newcastle. Pirona's suicide followed about a dozen suicides and many more attempted suicides by former students at the school. Shockingly, many people reported the abuse to the school principal who kept silent, punishing children who dared to complain.
As the impact of John Pirona’s suicide reverberated throughout the community, demands for a Royal Commission gained new impetus and in Newcastle, a public rally was held to boost the campaign.
Detective Peter Fox was at the rally and felt inspired to speak out about his struggle to expose crimes concealed by the church. Emboldened by speaking at the rally, he repeated his claims two months later on national television.
Four days later, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the establishment of a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This historic judicial inquiry will be the biggest in Australia’s history.
It will hear testimonies, not only about the original sex crimes, but also the subsequent crimes of concealment by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and other organisations.
The Australian inquiry goes way beyond the brief of any such inquiry anywhere in the world by promising to follow up with prosecuting sex offenders, and those guilty of concealing or covering up their crimes. A special investigation unit has been established to gather further evidence and prepare briefs for the police.
Although the commission itself cannot prosecute, the early establishment of these units means this important work in bringing about accountability can commence quite soon.
The effects of the royal commission could have widespread and unforeseen outcomes - such has been the force of religion in Australia, threatening to shake Australia’s social and political life when its findings are published.
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