ALLEGATIONS of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in communities including Ballarat have been withheld from Victoria Police for more than five decades, a parliamentary inquiry heard yesterday.
Speaking at the first day of hearings in a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child sexual abuse by religious organisations, Victoria Police deputy commissioner Graham Ashton said Catholic leaders had exacerbated the traumatic impact of abuse by failing to report it to police.
Mr Ashton said the Church appeared to be more concerned with public relations and legal liability than the extent of abuse.
“If a stranger were to enter the grounds of a church and rape a child, that rape would be reported to police and action expected,” Mr Ashton said.
“But if that stranger happens to be a member of the clergy, such as a priest, the matter would not be.”
He questioned aspects of a Catholic Church submission released by the parliament’s Family and Community Development Committee.
Mr Ashton said abuse had taken place in schools, orphanages, camps, offices, cars, shower blocks and confessionals with victims taking as long as 20 years to report the crimes.
The packed hearing room also heard evidence from senior public servants, legal and academic experts.
The discussion included mandatory reporting laws and records held by the Church.
Evidence about abuse by members of the Anglican and Jewish faiths as well as the Salvation Army was also heard.
Around 50 victims, advocates, family members and journalists gathered at the inquiry yesterday.
The hearing is set to resume on Monday.
The Baillieu Government established the inquiry after the leaking of a Victoria Police report linking as many as 43 suicides in the Ballarat region to systemic sexual abuse by priests and brothers.
Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart released a statement after the hearing.
He said many of the 618 cases of abuse upheld by the Church had been reported to police by victims and aspects of Mr Ashton’s evidence had not been raised with church officials.
“In relation to (church protocols), any suggestion of a lack of independence of the Independent Commissioners is a very serious attack on the professional integrity and competence of senior members of the Victorian Bar,” Archbishop Hart said.
Sydney University law professor Patrick Parkinson called for a legal amnesty for officials who had failed to report sexual abuse in Australia.
He said an amnesty would allow officials and lawmakers to fully understand the scope of abuse in the community.