Senate debates

Tuesday, 23 February 2021


Pell, Cardinal George, AC

8:45 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have previously suggested the time has come for a royal commission into the relationship between the Victorian Labor government and Victoria Police. With spectacular timing, yesterday Premier Andrews initiated a royal commission into Crown casino, saying it was about 'making sure that those who hold a casino licence in Victoria uphold the highest standards of probity and integrity—and that they're accountable for their actions.' Perhaps that was the reason, or was it, as journalist Damon Johnston suggested, that Andrews was beginning to look exposed and so made the classic 'If you're going to go late, you've got to go big' political move? One can only assume that Victoria Police, who govern the application of the laws in Victoria, would be held to an equal or higher standard than casino operators. If Crown casino events are sufficient to justify a royal commission then the events of the Pell case would, to borrow a gaming phrase, present a 'royal flush'.

A royal commission would be about much more than Cardinal Pell. It would be about whether the people of Victoria can have confidence in the probity and integrity of their police force. Even prior to the Pell investigation, charges, trial and unjust imprisonment, there was an indication that some within the highest ranks of Victoria Police were not willing to tell inconvenient truths that didn't match up to the prevailing narrative pushed by certain media outlets. Detective Sergeant Carson, of Ballarat police, produced two reports, in September 2011 and February 2012, into suicides in Victoria that were linked to childhood sexual assault by clergy members. The Carson reports claimed that there was 'an inordinate number of suicides' that appeared 'to be a consequence of sexual offending'. They claimed that 43 suicide deaths had occurred as a result of clerical sexual abuse and called for an inquiry which, the reports said, would likely uncover many more deaths as a consequence of clergy sexual abuse of which the Catholic Church would no doubt be aware but had chosen to remain silent.

The call for an inquiry was successful and Carson's reports had the desired effect, but only after those reports were provided to sympathetic media. On 13 April 2012, The Age published an article quoting the leaked reports at length. Four days later, the Victorian parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations was announced. The claims of 43 suicides also gained the attention of the Victorian coroner, who was urged to reopen the investigations into these deaths based on the Carson reports. The coroner referred the matter back to Victoria Police, whose sexual crimes squad investigated the veracity of the claims made in the reports. This investigation became known as Operation Plangere. Itwas tasked with seeking to substantiate the scope of the issues outlined in the Carson reports, including the identification of the persons mentioned, their living status and, if they were deceased, the cause and any associated factors contributing to their death.

Despite being handed down on 1 November 2012, less than two weeks after the commencement of the Victorian parliamentary inquiry, the Operation Plangerereport was not made public until May 2015, long after the parliamentary inquiry had completed its work and delivered its findings. The Plangereinvestigation completely decimated the claims made in the Carson reports. It said that there were 'significant limitations to the data supplied by Detective Sergeant Carson', including matters such as full names, birth dates, addresses and information about the alleged offenders or offences. The missing information could not be verified in most cases because no source was provided for the claim that a suicide death had occurred. There were no dates provided for the reports being made, how the person reporting the death made contact or who they made contact with.

When the Plangereteam sought more detail from Carson, it found that he could not provide any further information or records to substantiate the claims in his reports. Plangere found that it could only positively identify 25 persons of the 43 persons alleged to have committed suicide as a 'direct result of alleged instances of childhood sexual assault by clergy members'. Of those 25 that were capable of being positively identified, only 16 had been categorised as having committed suicide and only four were the victims of childhood sexual assault. Of those four, only one case had identified childhood sexual assault by a member of the clergy as a contributing factor in the motivations of the person for their suicide. Despite the findings essentially destroying the narrative of an epidemic of suicides as a result of clergy sexual abuse and despite their relevance to the parliamentary inquiry, the Plangerereport would remain confidential for another 2½ years.

It is important to pause at this point and be absolutely clear: all suicide deaths are a tragedy, and even one death or one attempted suicide because of clerical sexual abuse is inexcusable. But justice requires that the truth be told. Regrettably, the truth of this report was not told to the parliamentary inquiry.

When then Deputy Commissioner Ashton appeared before the inquiry, he was asked about the alleged suicides. He was asked whether he had 'seen an increase in suicides as a consequence of the abuse' and whether he had the data to support it. His response was:

I need to tread a little carefully on the suicide issue. Earlier this year we received a report from one of our detectives regarding work that was being pulled together on the issue of suicides as a result of clergy abuse. We have seen suicides as a result of clergy abuse. In relation to the material that was provided to us in a compiled format early this year, we met with the coroner and discussed the issues around those particular alleged suicides. I think there were 43 in number that were talked about at the broad level that needed to be looked at. The coroner asked us to do a review of those individual cases to determine whether she should reopen any of those matters. We have now concluded that research, and we will be in a position very shortly—maybe in the next week or two—to go back to see the coroner and give her the results of that work. So I am just a bit reluctant in open forum to provide you with those details.

While Ashton was not perhaps in a position to detail the findings to the inquiry, he would nonetheless have been in a position to know that the claim of the 43 suicides had no data behind it. It was totally disingenuous of him to repeat that figure and place it on the parliamentary record when it was false and it was clear that it would be revised down to a single death. This allowed a narrative of an extremely high rate of clergy abuse to play out nationally through the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, because that was well underway. In many corners this narrative is still prevalent, demonstrating just how damaging those allegations based on unverified information were.

What was the motivation of Victoria Police in keeping the information secret for so long? Why did Ashton wait until July 2013 to tell the Victorian parliament that the claim was 'overstated' and 'lacking in evidentiary basis'? Why did Ashton also not provide a correction to the media outlets who had received and reported on the overstated claims? Why didn't the Plangerereport? It was completed more than 12 months before the inquiry handed down its final report, so there was ample opportunity to correct the record, but this wasn't done.

Ashton continued to feature heavily in the Pell saga. As Chief Commissioner from 2015 to 2020, it was Ashton who oversaw the public appeal by Victoria Police's Sano taskforce for victims at St Patrick's Cathedral to step forward. He was the one who approved his then deputy and now successor, Shane Patton, to travel to Rome to interview Pell. It was Ashton who was in the top job when they decided to lay charges against Pell. At every stage, Ashton was in a position of influence.

In her book, Louise Milligan notes that the Operation Plangerereport 'unwittingly undermined the force's new commissioner'—that is, Graham Ashton—'and the police case against Pell.' It might be inferred that the dogged pursuit of charges against Pell, even in light of the mountain of contradicting evidence, was an attempt to save face, but without a proper inquiry the Victorian public will never know.

In some ways, the story of the Carson reports and the grossly overstated number of suicides is a small matter in a much larger story of abuse and cover-up in institutions, police leaking information to media and keeping contradictory reports secret and allowing media outlets like Fairfax and the ABC to create a narrative that saw an innocent man imprisoned for more than a year.

Looking at the matters pertaining to the Crown Casino, which have only yesterday seen a royal commission launched in the state of Victoria, the Pell case provides even further reason for a royal commission into Victoria Police: to restore confidence and to ask deep questions about government manipulation of people's lives for the sake of the political process. To be continued.