Hopoate and Pell: Victims of abuse of power

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Jonathon Ireland compares the police handling and media reporting of John Hopoate with that of Cardinal Pell and considers the greater ramifications for abuse of power and our legal rights. 

POWERFUL FRIENDS make all the difference. John Hopoate and Cardinal Pell have both recently been victims of police abusing their power. Only one got ardent public defence.

Last week, it emerged that Detective Inspector Wayne Walpole of the Organised Crime Squad approached the Manly Sea Eagles and expressed concern over John Hopoate coaching its under 18s team. Inspector Walpole shared with the Sea Eagles management that the squad had significant concerns about Hopoate’s links to organised crime, evidenced by his "exclusion" from the Star Casino.

Of course, they couldn’t share the evidence they had used to secretly and non-judicially make the exclusion order but the police made representations to the effect that Hopoate was not a fit and proper person to be coaching young adults.

The silence was deafening

At the same time, reports emerged that Cardinal Pell has been under investigation for the past year over allegations of child sexual abuse stemming back a number of decades. Given it was the same week that he was to give evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse via video-link from Rome, questions were asked about the timing and the source of the information.

And didn’t the conservatives blow a gasket?

Andrew Bolt wrote,

'Cardinal George Pell is the victim of one of the most vicious witch hunts to disgrace this country. It is shameful. Disgusting. Frightening.'

Bolt, of course, conveniently forgot that there are a lot of people in this country who are highly sceptical of Pell’s innocence in the Catholic Church’s manifest failure to deal with child sexual abuse amongst its clerics.

This is the same George Pell described by victims as having, 

“a sociopathic lack of empathy.”

He may not be a paedophile but there are a lot of people who despise Cardinal Pell.

Archbishop Dennis Hart jumped up to defend his friend, saying that the allegations did not reflect “the man I have known for 50 years”. Considering the scale of sexual abuse by priests within the Catholic Church, and how little their fellow clerics claim they knew about it, the statement would almost be comedic if the lack of introspection were not so deliberately tragic.

But they do have a point

We live in a country where we have a constitutionally protected separation of powers. The Legislature makes the Law, the Executive administers it and the Judiciary enforces it. What does this mean? It means that the people who make laws and administer them are not to decide whether they have been contravened. They can investigate and make their case to the Judiciary about whether or not a particular law has been broken but it is the Judiciary alone, which decides whether or not a contravention has occurred. The impetus for this is obvious — the branches of government are occupied by humans and humans are susceptible to prejudice.

A person should not be saddled with the burden of criminal sanction until they have had such accusations heard before a court, in a fair trial. A conviction carries with it substantial and burdensome penalties which affect every aspect of a person’s life. Only an impartial judge or jury should decide whether a person should have a criminal record.

Which brings us back to Pell

The criticisms of the article about the investigation into Pell’s alleged child sexual abuse are well founded, as much as I detest the man, personally. Regardless of how the information got out, I find it abhorrent that members of the police force found it acceptable to publicly release such information before even discussing the allegations with the Cardinal.

We can’t stand here and argue that every person has a right to a fair trial and then eviscerate Pell for child sex abuse based on allegations subject to an ongoing investigation. It was poor and irresponsible journalism, and an even worse mar on police integrity.

There is an argument to say the lines were a little more blurred in the Pell case — a journalist found out Pell was being investigated for child sex abuse. For all we know, the journalist may have already spoken to some of the complainants in the matter. The fact is that the journalist could have published the allegations without talking to the police but in all likelihood was making enquiries to ensure their story was accurate. If this was the case, then Victorian Police had their hands tied — to deny the investigation would amount to misleading the public.

If it wasn’t the case, it was appallingly irresponsible of the police to leak the information but at least the leak did not give Cardinal Pell a criminal "record".

Hopoate: An entirely different matter

The NSW Police made the decision to make an unsolicited approach to Manly and the NRL concerning Hopoate’s alleged links to organised crime. He has no criminal convictions relating to organised crime and the decision to exclude a person from the Casino under Section 81 of the Casino Act is an administrative decision made in secret without all the usual requirements of evidence law. It is the sort of practice that makes the Star Chamber of 17th century Britain look like a bastion of justice. The Judiciary only tolerates these quasi-judicial forums because they are supposed to make decisions of limited impact without the sanction of criminal law.

What the police did, essentially, when they approached the Sea Eagles and the National Rugby League (NRL) was give John Hopoate a further criminal record without anything approaching a fair trial. We have never seen the evidence and they are claiming that it is confidential and won’t be released. Confidentiality and privacy are supposed to shield the rights of civilians, not the state-bodies bringing actions against them. In this age of metadata and warrantless searches, it is rather perverse that the police can claim that the evidence they use to give a person what is, in effect, a criminal record, should not be exposed to public scrutiny.

This is an enormous affront to our rights. What is a criminal record if not a barrier or social inconvenience acting as a warning about someone’s status as a fit and proper person? If the police want to make public accusations about Hopoate’s links to organised crime, then it should be put before a court. If not, they should sit back and shut up — it is not their role to decide whether or not someone is a fit and proper person and it certainly isn’t their role to approach private sector organisations about confidential investigative findings, which severely impact someone’s employment prospects.

But where is the voice of outrage from Bolt?

So quick to defend Pell, yet deafening silence when Hopoate’s rights are violated in a manner that has greater social implications. Our rights are under siege in this country — terrorism laws have eroded much of our rights to privacy, due process and transparent government. Yet the only time these dog-whistling alarmists get up on their high horses is when one of their own privileged and powerful come under attack.

Why not defend Hopoate, Bolt? Thomas Erskine risked his reputation in the defence of Thomas Paine when he was tried for seditious libel in 1792, after publishing the Rights of Man. You stand in the foreground of an inspiring history where people have defended unpopular causes, yet you chose the misjudged publishing of allegations against a high priest over the State’s abuse of power against a common man. What sort of person does that make you?

You can read more from Jonathon Ireland on his blog, The Young Contrarians, or follow him on twitter here

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