Police criticize the Catholic Church for cover-ups

By a Broken Rites Australia researcher. Article updated 15 October 2012

Police headquarters in the Australian state of Victoria have launched a scathing attack on the Catholic Church, accusing it of deliberately impeding police investigations into child-abuse crimes.

In a submission to a state parliamentary inquiry (an inquiry by parliamentarians into the handling of child abuse by churches), Victoria Police recommend that some of the Catholic Church's actions to hinder investigations be criminalised.

The police submission lists a number of ways in which the Catholic Church has hindered the criminal justice process, including dissuading victims of sexual crimes from reporting them to police, failing to engage with police and alerting suspects of allegations against them, ''which may have resulted in loss of evidence''.

It says the church moved or protected known or suspected sexual offenders. While the submission notes the church has recently improved co-operation with police, in some cases it has been reluctant to provide information even when a warrant was issued.

The inquiry into the handling of abuse by religious and other organisations was established in April 2012 after years of campaigning by victims, advocates and media, and after a series of revelations in the media about the extent of abuse within the church and the mishandling of allegations by church-appointed officials.

Confidential police reports give examples of suicides of at least 40 people sexually abused by Catholic clergy in some parts of Victoria and say it appeared the church knew about a shockingly high rate of suicides and premature deaths but had ''chosen to remain silent''.

The Catholic Church has consistently acknowledged past mistakes but maintains it has improved its protocols for dealing with victims since 1996, when it established its Australia-wide "Towards Healing" internal inquiry process.

But police, in their submission, are particularly critical of this and the Melbourne archdiocese's equivalent process (called the Melbourne Response), saying it appeared to be a ''de facto substitute for criminal justice'' and detrimental to prosecuting suspected sexual criminals.

The Melbourne Response states on its website that in the 14 years from 1996 to 2002 the Melbourne diocese has compensated 300 people as victims of sexual abuse and identified 86 offenders, of whom 60 were priests. [The Melbourne response is confined to complaints concerning Melbourne diocesan priests and personnel; it does not deal with religious Brothers or priests from religious orders.] Yet not one complainant was referred to Victoria Police, the police submission says.

''Some of the offenders may be laicised [that is, removed from the priesthood], however this is rare. In many cases offenders are moved to other positions within the church which have a limited opportunity for offending, or provided with counselling,'' police say.

''The [church's internal] inquiry process restricts the ability of victims to have the offender brought to account through the criminal justice system, and promotes the culture of secrecy which prevents more victims speaking out.''

Police say the church's internal investigators are not trained or resourced to deal with the allegations and do not have the benefit of recent changes to the way in which police typically interview victims of sexual assault to reduce trauma.

''Indeed, we are aware of circumstances where victims have been required to confront alleged offenders where they have been required to repeat allegations in the presence of these alleged offenders,'' police say.

"Victoria Police has offered to provide this briefing to the Catholic Church on two occasions but these offers have not been accepted to date."

The Victoria Police submission can be seen here.