Police ordered not to talk to journalist

Source: Newcastle Herald

JOANNE McCarthy was ‘‘the genesis’’ of a police strikeforce set up to investigate the Catholic Church’s alleged cover-up of paedophile priests, an inquiry was told on Monday.

But the Newcastle Herald journalist was largely ignored by senior police, Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox told the inquiry, and police were ordered not to talk to her.

At a meeting of senior police in December 2010, Mr Fox and other officers were gagged from talking to the media.

Mr Fox suggested police should involve McCarthy in their investigation because ‘‘she knows more about this issue than this entire room put together’’.

‘‘She is the be-all and end-all on this matter,’’ he said. ‘‘She has all the information and all the witnesses ... it would be silly to cut her out.

‘‘Joanne McCarthy was the genesis of how Strikeforce Lantle came into being and she also helped to steer witnesses to come forward.

Mr Fox came under heavy fire during yesterday’s proceedings as to why he was keeping close contact with McCarthy and was asked to explain a series of emails between the two.

‘‘I didn’t see it as something being provided to Ms McCarthy,’’ he said. ‘‘She had a vast amount of information, far more than any police officer had. This is a situation where anything Ms McCarthy was told, she already knew.’’

Asked if he kept McCarthy updated with progress on his investigation, Mr Fox replied ‘‘yes’’.

‘‘She had forged a close bond with people who had made complaints. And I treated her as a complainant, as I would with any other complainant,’’ he said.

‘‘Whether the police liked it or not, people [victims of abuse] trusted her.’’

McCarthy, who was recently named Australian Journalist of the Year for her investigations into the Catholic Church, will be the third witness called to front the inquiry, possibly as early as today.

'I didn't trust other police': detective

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox was ‘‘uneasy’’. 

His office had been raided while he was on leave, he and other police had been pulled off investigations into the alleged cover-up of child sex abuse, and a colleague had told him about the ‘‘Catholic Mafia’’ that existed within Newcastle’s police ranks.

‘‘I just didn’t trust other police,’’ he said.

Mr Fox spent most of yesterday in the witness box as the first day of inquiries into police handling of child sexual abuse allegations within the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese got under way.

The inquiry, headed by Commissioner Margaret Cunneen, heard a series of stunning allegations from Mr Fox including suggestions that a ‘‘Catholic Mafia’’ was behind a grand scheme of collusion, and that police chose not to charge former Catholic Bishop Michael Malone with hindering police investigations into paedophile priests.

The inquiry was also told senior police were stopped from talking to Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy despite her being ‘‘the genesis’’ of a strikeforce charged with investigating the cover-up of child sex abuse within the diocese.

In her opening address, Commissioner Cunneen acknowledged the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese ‘‘has had a very troubled history regarding issues of child protection and the sexual abuse of children’’. She also referred to the crimes of convicted paedophile priests Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher who committed a ‘‘reprehensible betrayal of faith’’ against ‘‘vulnerable and innocent children’’.

Mr Fox took the stand shortly after 11am. He described taking a statement from a young victim of Fletcher as ‘‘the worst I’ve ever encountered’’.

‘‘It was the most horrid in nature, the most dreadful of crimes,’’ he said, adding that the victim had attempted suicide on several occasions.

Mr Fox said he first became suspicious about possible collusion between police and senior members of the Catholic Church in June 2002. Then, Mr Fox said he had interviewed senior members of the diocese who later warned James Fletcher that he was being investigated for child sex crimes.

‘‘The scope for charging [then-Catholic Bishop Michael] Malone was there – I formally discussed charging Malone with the Director of Public Prosecutions,’’ Mr Fox said. 

‘‘But it was suggested that Michael Malone would be better used as a witness than as an accused.’’

Asked by Counsel Assisting, Julia Lonergan SC, if there was a formal brief taken in regards to Bishop Malone’s conduct, Mr Fox replied ‘‘no’’.

‘‘Were any active steps taken to investigate the concealment of offences up to 2010,’’ Ms Lonergan asked. ‘‘No,’’ Mr Fox replied again.

Mr Fox said his interest in the alleged concealment of crimes grew when he was contacted by  journalist Joanne McCarthy ‘‘who had piles of information’’ about the alleged covering-up of child abuse by senior Catholic clergy including Bishop Malone and Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson.

Mr Fox told the inquiry that two senior police officers told him an investigation would not proceed.

‘‘[Detective Chief Inspector] Brad Tayler did not want to investigate ... he wants it to go away,’’ Mr Fox said, adding that he was later told by Detective Chief Inspector Dave Waddell to stop investigating the claims.

‘‘Some of the documents were alarming,’’ Mr Fox said, ‘‘and, for me, things had gone way beyond just a suspicion.’’

Asked by Ms Lonergan if the term ‘‘Catholic Mafia’’, first coined by former colleague Troy Grant, was made in reference to the police or the clergy, Mr Fox replied ‘‘I think it may have incorporated both ... but I took it to mean police because of the way it was said at the time.’’

Mr Fox was asked why he wasn’t involving other police in his investigation.

‘‘I didn’t trust other police at that stage,’’ he said. 

‘‘I had a very uneasy feeling about what was going on and developed a mistrust.’’

When Mr Fox returned to work from annual leave on October 18 2010, he was approached by a public servant, Miriam Watt, who said that Superintendent Charlie Haggart and acting Superintendent Wayne Humphrey had raided his office in his absence.

When he approached Superintendent Haggart, Mr Fox said he was told to ‘‘hand over all the documentation I had gathered regarding church abuse’’.

‘‘He made it clear that the file was being taken off me,’’ he said.

By December 1, Mr Fox was summoned to a meeting with Superintendent Haggart and other senior police to discuss the alleged cover-ups by Catholic clergy. At the meeting, he was informed that Strikeforce Lantle would be taking over the investigation. Mr Fox said he was happy with the arrangement, but said he questioned why he was ordered by Superintendent Max Mitchell to cease talking to media.

‘‘When I suggested that [Herald journalist] Joanne McCarthy be involved, Superintendent Mitchell became quite hostile,’’ he said.

‘‘I protested, Joanne McCarthy knows more about this matter than everyone in this room put together.’’

Mr Fox is expected to continue giving evidence when the inquiry resumes this morning. The Newcastle hearings will continue for two weeks, and for a further two weeks from June 24.

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