The Dark Records of Broken Lives
By Stephen CrittendenApril 17, 2013
The role of record-keeping is close to the centre of what the royal commission into abuse is all about: the battle between the Closed and the Open Society. But — at least in some cases — documents have been subpoenaed only as far back as 1970.
In Belgium in 2010, such was the level of paranoia surrounding the investigation of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that police broke into the cathedral tombs of cardinals, drilling holes and poking cameras down in search of hidden cachès of documents – which they didn’t find.
Australia’s national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse doesn’t seem to be provoking anything like those levels of lurid sensationalism, at least not so far.
In his address opening the royal commission this month the chairman, Justice Peter McClellan, welcomed the Catholic Church’s repeated assurances that it wants to co-operate fully with the royal commission, and said he understood that the “enormous task” of collecting and organising documents held by the Church had already begun.
Justice McClellan conceded that most of the organisations whose activities are likely to be of interest to the commission are not yet in a position to provide documentation about their internal management practices or the way they have dealt with complaints of child sexual abuse.
But he also revealed that the commission has already served notice for production of documents on “particular bodies within the Catholic Church in Australia, its insurer, the Salvation Army and the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions.”
Francis Sullivan, the CEO of the Catholic Church’s new Truth, Justice and Healing Council, has told The Global Mail that the Archdiocese of Brisbane and the Diocese of Wollongong are the two Catholic entities that have been served notice at this stage.
The commission has requested documents going back to 1970. This is an interesting decision. Although there are certainly no bishops living who were in office before this date to answer for anything that was done, there are sure to be victims of abuse that took place inside Catholic institutions prior to that date who will want to tell their stories. It is also likely, when it comes to state-run, religious, and other non-government children’s homes and orphanages, that a significant part of the story of the abuse that occurred in Australia will remain unexplored should the commission decide to apply a 1970 cut-off date.
The Truth, Justice and Healing Council was established by the Catholic bishops and Catholic Religious Australia, the peak body representing religious orders, to be the Church’s central agency for dealings with the royal commission. One of its key roles will be facilitating production of documents where the commission requires them from any Catholic agency. Some victims’ groups are cynical about its establishment, believing its real purpose is to insulate the bishops. But given the very decentralised structure and size of the Catholic Church in Australia and the number of Catholic agencies that have contact with children, creating such a body would seem to have been a practical necessity.
Sullivan has told The Global Mail that the Council has been working with the royal commission since the beginning of the year to help it understand how the Catholic Church is structured and who has jurisdiction.
“In the beginning, the commission thought that when they served notice on the Archbishop of Brisbane and the Bishop of Wollongong, those bishops would be able to provide every relevant file within their geographical region,” he says. “They can’t. So we helped them structure the notices so they didn’t do something counter-productive.”
If the Australian Catholic Bishops and religious orders appear to be approaching the royal commission in a co-operative spirit, there have also been small but positive signs recently that other sections of the worldwide Catholic Church are moving towards greater transparency and accountability. In the United States, 30 dioceses have published the names of their abusing priests on their websites. Two weeks ago, the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome Listecki, whose archdiocese has filed for bankruptcy, announced he will publish 3,000 pages of documents on his website relating to abuse stretching back 80 years. Previously, other US dioceses, most notoriously the archdiocese of Los Angeles, had to be forced by court order to release files.
Even the Vatican may be getting the message. Last month, the new papal nuncio (diplomatic representative) to Australia, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, expressed support for the royal commission and said the Holy See was “ready to respond to any legitimate request which is presented through proper diplomatic channels and respects accepted practice in accordance with the international agreements to which both the Holy See and Commonwealth of Australia are adherents.”
Although this is a qualified offer, it nonetheless represents a striking change from the Vatican’s intransigence in response to the Ryan and Murphy inquiries in Ireland, and it will be interesting to see whether the royal commission intends to test the nuncio’s resolve. In 2001, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the vatican congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ordered that all matters relating to the investigation and laicisation of abusing priests should be sent to his office. So there is no question that hundreds of Australian files are in Rome. Perhaps the nuncio could try to get them returned?
So what kind of files are held by various Catholic Church agencies – and indeed by other religious, government and non-government organisations?
During his appearance before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry last October, abuse expert Professor Patrick Parkinson of Sydney University Law School was asked to give an overall sense of the state of the files kept by different religious organisations. “Are they all there?” Labor MP Bronwyn Halfpenny asked him. “Are they intact? Have they been kept properly? Are any missing, deliberately or otherwise?”
“Nobody has seen them, is the answer,” Professor Parkinson replied.
Parkinson said his examination of files held by the Anglican Church had revealed that documentation was “very sparse” prior to the late 1990s, and that the Wood Royal Commission in NSW had been an important catalyst for improving record-keeping practices.
“In terms of the Catholic Church, even the Director of Professional Standards may not know, because he or she manages the process of investigation and assessment but then it is up to the Order or the diocese as to what happens from there in terms of compensation and then in terms of what happens to the offender. So those files will be with each church authority. I certainly have not seen them,” Parkinson said.
The Catholic Truth, Justice and Healing Council’s Francis Sullivan says he hasn’t yet seen a single file either. But there are still some days to go before the end of April, the deadline the Archdiocese of Brisbane, the diocese of Wollongong and Catholic Insurance Ltd have been given to provide their files to the royal commission.
According to Angela Sdrinis of the personal injury firm Ryan Carlisle Thomas, relevant Catholic Church files in Australia would include all diocesan and archdiocesan personnel files, and all files held by the Catholic Church’s national abuse protocol Towards Healing and the separate protocol of the Melbourne Archdiocese known as the Melbourne Response – “all those entities where people made formal complaints and where they would have been asked to identify a perpetrator.”
Then there are the files held by Professional Standards Committees at national and diocesan levels, Catholic Insurance Ltd, and the various Catholic religious orders.
In relation to diocesan records, the vicar general of Parramatta, Father Peter Williams, says minutes of meetings of the curia, the personnel board and the college of consultors in each diocese, may also contain relevant information. The curia is the body that assists a bishop to run his diocese and is usually made up of senior priests. Williams says the college of consultors “acts as the trustees for each diocese and it would have to ratify all compensation payouts”, although some settlements would also be at the discretion of the bishop or vicar general.
Diocesan personnel files
The Parramatta diocese is the fifth largest in the country, and Peter Williams says it already has all its personnel files available in digital form. “If and when the Commission wants to see those records, they will be available,” he told The Global Mail. Other larger Catholic dioceses are close to being in the same position.
Williams explains that under Church rules, each diocese is obliged to maintain a personnel file on every priest of the diocese.
“The personnel file contains the date of ordination, certificate of ordination, and letters of appointment to parishes. If a priest wrote to his bishop voicing concerns about a particular theological issue, or a parishioner wrote complaining about how Father was conducting the liturgy, those would also be the kinds of thing kept on his personnel file.”
It is not widely understood that Australian Catholic dioceses keep what are in effect two parallel sets of personnel files on their priests, or at least they have since more formal procedures for dealing with abuse were introduced in 1997 with the establishment of the national abuse protocol Towards Healing and the stand-alone protocol of the Melbourne archdiocese.
“From the late 1990s, in the event of any complaint about a breach of professional standards being received the bishop would create a separate file, known as the professional standards file”, Williams says. “When a priest dies, his personnel and professional standards files inevitably should find their way to the diocesan archives. They are never destroyed.”
But prior to the 1990s the quality of the file keeping, and what the bishops chose to put on the files was pretty ad hoc, and varied from bishop to bishop and diocese to diocese.
What this means is that in personnel files prior to the 1990s, the royal commission may or may not find documentation of misdemeanours such as sexual abuse. As one Sydney priest told the The Global Mail this week, “Some bishops and archbishops were very reluctant to put anything in writing, it was all done by word of mouth. Really, they had no processes.”
This comment is well illustrated in the recent Church-commissioned report by Antony Whitlam QC on the Church’s handling of the “Father F” case.
In his report, Whitlam describes the “quite unfathomable” lack of detail about “F”’s alleged crimes kept on file by his bishop, Henry Joseph Kennedy, who was Bishop of Armidale from 1971 to 1991, and died in 2003.
“There are numerous letters and postcards from ‘F’ to the bishop, all in the most fawning and ingratiating terms, to mark every birthday, anniversary and feast day imaginable. These bits and pieces have all been retained. There is correspondence from the bishop himself dealing with the minutiae of ‘F’’s claims for a car allowance,” Whitlam writes. “Yet there is not one word about a matter of real consequence.”
By contrast, Kennedy’s successor as Bishop of Armidale, Kevin Manning, emerges in Whitlam’s report as a meticulous note-keeper.
One archdiocese that apparently did maintain meticulous personnel files is Melbourne. Helen Last, of victims’ advocacy group In Good Faith and Associates, worked as a consultant of the Archdiocese from 1994 to 1997. She helped set up the archdiocese’s first pastoral-response office, working with 130 victims and their families and pioneering an “aftermath program” for entire parishes where there had been a paedophile priest.
“At the time I arrived,” she says, “thirty-two writs had been served on Archbishop Frank Little”, in relation to allegations against priests of the Melbourne Archdiocese.
As director of the pastoral-office, Last worked closely with then-vicar general Monsignor Gerald Cudmore, who died in 2004. “Monsignor Cudmore had detailed personnel files in his office and he would regularly refer to them as part of the work we were doing together.” Last says the files “went right back” and appeared to have been meticulously maintained over the decades. They included documentation of sexual abuse complaints.
“I remember Monsignor Cudmore referring to the file of Father Peter Searson [now deceased],” Last says. “He’d been the parish priest of Doveton, and before that he’d been at Sunbury. And his file contained numerous letters from parents and parishioners and community workers begging the hierarchy to get rid of him.”
The vicar general of Parramatta, Father Peter Williams, says the Catholic Church has become increasingly professionalised in response to the abuse crisis, as have the other mainline churches. “As vicar general, I would no longer interview a complainant on my own. That task is now undertaken by a trained professional who prepares a report for me as vicar general,” he says.
Francis Sullivan agrees. “Part of the public narrative is focussed on unfortunate and sensational stories from the ’70s and ’80s, so it creates quite a strong perception of mishandling”, he says.
“But the Church has been far more open in the last 20 years, better procedures have been put in place, and we’ve been placed under far more scrutiny than even major government agencies.”
Catholic seminaries are one type of Catholic clerical institution that has almost always kept meticulous files. A former seminarian at St Patrick’s Seminary, Manly, has told The Global Mail that seminary archives were highly detailed about all aspects of a seminarian’s life, indeed, that they were often very invasive. He says the royal commission could easily overlook their potential relevance. “These are the files the royal commission needs to see and cross reference against all the clergy who have been charged and all those where settlements have been made with victims, because some problems were noticed very early on and put on file. These files have the potential to expose scores of clergy who have been offenders but never been charged.”
The archdiocese of Sydney’s seminary at Springwood closed in 1977, and St Patrick’s Seminary, Manly, closed in 1995. It is understood that the Springwood and Manly files are now stored in the archives of the Sydney archdiocese but The Global Mail’s request to the archdiocesan media unit for confirmation of their whereabouts got nowhere. Communications director Katrina Lee said that the archdiocese is conducting a review of the files it holds, and that steps have been taken to ensure retention of relevant documents.
Dr Wayne Chamley, researcher with the victim advocacy group Broken Rites, has been urging the royal commissioners to use the commission’s powers for forensic investigation and “follow paper trails” within the Catholic Church in order to find “what was allowed to happen and what was enabled to happen”. He says it will be important to follow lines of inquiry beyond the files held by diocesan chanceries.
Broken Rites is particularly interested in files held by the various Catholic Education offices. One involves the case of Father Gerald Ridsdale, who abused large numbers of Catholic school children in central Victoria the 1970s and ’80s. In 1994, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to 46 counts of indecent assault against 21 children. In 2006, he pleaded guilty to a further 35 charges, relating to the assault of 10 other boys, and was sentenced to a further four years. He will be eligible for parole in August this year.
George Pell was episcopal vicar for Education in the Ballarat diocese from 1973 to 1984, and shared the same presbytery as Ridsdale in 1973. “I hope the royal commission will interest itself in the files held by the Catholic Education Office in the diocese of Ballarat and what they might be able to tell us about what was or wasn’t known in relation to Ridsdale’s activities,” Chamley says. Cardinal Pell is on record as saying that he was never close friends with Ridsdale and, at the time, had no idea that Ridsdale was an abuser.
Another important paper trail involves insurance. Chamley says when Ireland’s Justice Yvonne Murphy was in Australia recently she spoke about how insurance files had provided a fruitful line of inquiry for her own inquiry. “That rang a bell for me,” Chamley says. “Whenever Broken Rites is involved in a mediation on behalf of a victim, we might meet with the head of the religious order and their lawyers, but the people from Catholic Insurance Ltd are always in the room.”
Broken Rites has already spoken with the royal commission and Chamley says he’s pleased to see the Church’s insurers have already been served notice to provide documents.
Files held by Peter O’Callaghan QC
Another rich source of documentation may be the office of Peter O’Callaghan QC. He is employed by the Archdiocese of Melbourne as its chief internal investigator of abuse allegations received under its abuse protocol known as the Melbourne Response. He conducts preliminary interviews with complainants, investigating their complaints and, if satisfied, refers them on to a compensation panel.
His methods have been criticised by Victoria Police during the ongoing Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse. The police submission claimed conflict of interest because he provided “authoritative advice” to a victim that a criminal case against a member of the church would be unlikely to succeed in court. In another case, police say the independent commissioner informed a suspect that he was being investigated by police, giving him the opportunity to destroy files. O’Callaghan has since issued a statement calling the police submission “seriously misconceived and plainly wrong”.
Helen Last of In Good Faith and Associates recently told the parliamentary inquiry that one grievance with the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s response to sexual abuse is that Peter O’Callaghan’s office is “the public door” available for victims who want to have their cases responded to and negotiate a settlement. “There are other portals people can use to negotiate for better outcomes apart from going through the front door,” she told The Global Mail. “They don’t all go through the Melbourne Response.”
Last told the inquiry that hundreds of settlements with victims had been made outside of the Melbourne Response process. “It causes a lot of confusion,” she told The Global Mail. “There are files all over the place. The whole thing is a mess.”
The records of Encompass
In November 2012, the Fairfax papers revealed the Catholic Church was in possession of thousands of pages of documents detailing the psychosexual profiles of dozens of clergy accused of sexually abusing children and vulnerable adults. These are the files of the Church’s clergy-treatment program Encompass, which ran from 1997 until it was closed down in 2008.
In that time, 1,100 clergy were treated for problems such as sexual abuse, substance addiction and depression. Detailed psychological reports were prepared, including assessments on the likelihood of reoffending, and these were made available to church leaders and lawyers, but paedophile clergy were not reported to the police.
The CEO of the Catholic Truth, Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, has confirmed to The Global Mail that the Encompass files are still intact. “They were not destroyed. They are in secure storage, and if the royal commission is interested in seeing them, they only need to make an approach. But these are confidential medical files, so I am sure the royal commission will handle them appropriately,” Sullivan says.
Documents of the Catholic Religious orders
The Catholic religious orders are self-governing and have their own files. Broken Rites says they will be a key litmus test for the success or otherwise of Francis Sullivan’s Truth, Justice and healing Council, and that it would be a mistake to take their assurances of full co-operation for granted.
Some members of these orders, including some of the Christian Brothers, still find it extremely difficult to acknowledge the truth about the level of abuse that has occurred. In his evidence before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry last year, Professor Patrick Parkinson described one order in particular, the Salesians of Don Bosco, as a “dangerous organisation”, explaining that, “wherever a church or an organisation is more concerned with its own protection than the protection of children then we must say it is a dangerous organisation”.
Parkinson says the national and international leadership of the Salesians intervened to suppress publication of a report he wrote in 2010, which was highly critical of the order’s handling of abuse, and that the Australian Church’s National Professional Standards Committee had also been involved in suppressing the report. “The Salesians have been described by one of America’s leading experts as the most unrepentant and defiant order he has ever come across. Indeed on the issue of sexual abuse, I would absolutely endorse that. I would say they are not only unrepentant and defiant, they are untruthful,” he told the inquiry last October.
In Los Angeles this week, up to a dozen male religious orders including the Jesuits, Vincentians, Dominicans and Salesians, will be in court fighting attempts by lawyers representing abuse victims who are seeking an order forcing them to release their records on abusing priests. In January, a Superior Court judge ordered the archdiocese of Los Angeles to hand over 30,000 pages of files documenting abuse over 15 years.
But Sullivan says his Truth, Justice and Healing Council was partly established under the auspices of the Catholic religious orders and that he’s confident of receiving the full co-operation of all of them.
“At this stage we haven’t had any push back from anybody. Maybe it’s the nature of the times, but there’s such a compelling mindset in the community about the need for proper analysis of what’s gone on that there’s now an equally compelling resolve on the part of the bishops and the religious orders to co-operate. There’s no point running away from the truth or the scrutiny,” Sullivan says.
According to Broken Rites, it is not uncommon for priests who are removed from active ministry to end up working as Church archivists. Broken Rites says it knows of two male religious orders whose archives are maintained by alleged or convicted sex offenders.
One of these archivists is a religious brother convicted in Goulburn Local Court in 1989. The other is Tony Caruana, who works as an archivist for the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Kensington. In November last year, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the head of the MSC order, Father John Mulrooney, had confirmed that 12 former students of Chevalier College, Bowral, had reported being abused by Father Caruana in the 1980s and that the Victims Compensation Tribunal had awarded compensation to one of the complainants. Caruana was charged in 1990 and again in 1994, and was found not guilty on both occasions. Father Mulrooney also confirmed that Caruana was employed by the order as an archivist. The Global Mail is not alleging that any personnel files or other files documenting abuse have been tampered with in either case.
Information held by state human services departments
The royal commission will undoubtedly want to see the files of many non-religious organisations, including in particular those of the state human services departments that are not only responsible for the welfare of children in families, but also have final responsibility for state, religious and other non-government residential-care facilities.
Here the quality of record-keeping over many decades is likely to present a huge challenge, particularly because many of these institutions have closed. In 2012, the Victorian Ombudsman discovered that the Victorian Department of Human Services was in possession of 80 linear kilometres of documents in boxes, much of which were uncatalogued and some of which had been marked to be destroyed.
Appearing before the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into sex abuse last week, Records and Information Management Professionals Australasia accused the Department of Human Services of a “profound conflict of interest”, because fixing the problem would lead to an avalanche of new compensation claims.
A spokesperson for the Victorian Department of Human Services has told The Global Mail that a significant proportion of its “hundreds of thousands” of records date far back into last century and emanate from different homes, institutions and service providers. These records are in the process of being catalogued so they meet contemporary record-keeping standards and become more accessible.
“The Department’s current priority is cataloguing records likely to assist during the royal commission and to that end it has recruited 26 specialist archivists to undertake this task,” the spokesperson said.
The NSW Department of Family and Community Services is dealing with a similar backlog, but is in a better position than Victoria. The NSW Government operated an estimated 100 children’s homes of various sizes throughout the 20th century and the department says it holds 76,753 ward-of-state files created since the mid-1930s. Since 2005, the Department’s Historic Records Project has been progressively “identifying, indexing and digitising other surviving records which might also contain personal information about former children in state care”, a spokesperson told The Global Mail.
Needles in haystacks
Lawyer Angela Sdrinis has warned that relevant files held by both state and religious agencies are in constant danger of being lost or destroyed. She says it is an offence at any time to destroy any document that may be required for the purposes of future litigation. It is also an offence under the Royal Commission Act to destroy any document that may be required by the commission.
Asked about the state of record-keeping in general, Sdrinis says that in her experience organisations that continue to operate and provide services are probably in better shape. “To give an anecdotal example, I’m told the records of a particular home in Victoria were removed by the superintendent when he retired and are stored in his garage to this day.”
Scouts Australia, an organisation which tells The Global Mail that its records are already being provided to the royal commission, says it has a “zero tolerance” policy in relation to abuse of any kind. “Scouts is providing additional assistance to the commission as discussed between the commission and Scouts Australia. Further, Scouts has already supplied a submission to the commission supporting its role and undertaking to provide all the assistance it can,” a spokesperson said.
But many religious and state-run homes have long since been closed down, and in many cases their records have been lost or destroyed. Melbourne lawyer Angela Sdrinis has recently acted on behalf of 18 former residents of the St Cuthbert’s Children’s Home in Colac, which closed down in 1977. The allegations concerned physical and/or sexual assault both at the hands of workers and other residents. “I believe its records were originally transferred to another home, the Glastonbury Children’s Home in Geelong, and I don’t know that any real records can now be located,” says Sdrinis. “I can’t say categorically that there are no records, because I make an approach in each individual case, but I’m often told in relation to a specific inquiry that there’s nothing there.”
Both the Lost Innocents (2001) and the Forgotten Australians (2004) reports confirmed that there has been a long-term de-prioritisation of records management in Australia, which has resulted in the loss or destruction of files.
In Victoria, a 1991 report into abuse of intellectually disabled residents of the Pleasant Creek Training Centre in Stawell found negligent record-keeping, including poor security resulting in unauthorised access to records by night supervisors, to have been a contributing factor to the abuse that occurred. The allegations related to abuse by workers employed at the facility of intellectually disabled under-age and adult residents, and also of female nursing staff.
An excellent submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry from the Who Am I? Project based at the university of Melbourne, which researches the role of archiving and record-keeping practices in constructing the identity of people who were in institutional care as children, describes the archival collections of government, church, and non-government organisations as “a rich and under-researched source of knowledge” about the criminal abuse of children. However the submission makes the point that evidence is “not always found in the obvious places.”
Broken Rites says abuse in homes such as those run by the Christian Brothers in Western Australia has been well documented, but many other orphanages and residential institutions deserve further investigation. Asked whether he believes there are geographical areas where new documents or more thorough investigation have the potential to add significantly to public knowledge of the dimensions of abuse in Australia, Broken Rites’ researcher Wayne Chamley says: “The big dark area is Queensland, I believe.”
That’s not withstanding that Queensland has already had a comprehensive inquiry into the abuse of children in institutions. The Forde inquiry (1999) encompassed abuse in 150 orphanages and detention centres over the previous hundred years. In her report, Leneen Forde, a former Governor of Queensland, commented on “the paucity of written records and archival material, the small proportion of ex-residents of institutions who came forward and the understandable reluctance of current residents to speak freely”, and said these factors had made her task more difficult.
The role of archives and record keeping may seem like a background issue, but in so many ways it is close to the centre of what this royal commission is all about: the battle between the Closed and the Open Society. We know that abuse flourishes in the dark – and over the coming months and years we will learn about the extent to which it flourished in institutions where voiceless and vulnerable children were kept away from the public eye. On a more positive note, the worldwide scandal over sex abuse by the clergy is forcing the Catholic Church, and all other mainline churches, in the direction of greater transparency and accountability.
As Francis Sullivan says, “I’m confident that the royal commission will demonstrate the evolution in accountability that has occurred since the 1970s and the fact that the Church has actually documented a lot of the past in an attempt to be accountable. But the files will be a demonstration of our bona fides.”