Whistleblower and investigator Fiona Barnett writes about her experience before the the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and her concerns regarding its future.

[Read Part Two: ‘Working with children’ loopholes leave students at risk]

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The eminent Australians tasked with conducting the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. (Image courtesy childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au)
 

ON 26 JUNE 2013, my husband and I attended a private hearing with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. My pre-submitted statement provided the framework for a two hour interaction.

At the top my agenda was, what I believe to be, a Tweed Shire paedophile ring (as reported on IA last month). I was given sufficient time to present ample documentation supporting my allegations. Mainly, that the NSW Education Department and the NSW Police collaborated to cover-up multiple allegations of child sexual abuse at several local primary and secondary schools.

I emerged from the hearing frustrated, overwhelmed, and a touch disappointed at what I felt was a cathartic yet adversarial process.

Here I explore the key concerns I am left with:

Déjà vu — another Royal Commission

At my hearing, I asked the commissioners what they planned to do differently in order to avoid the pitfalls of the last royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse in New South Wales — the failed Wood Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service was sparked by complaints of a paedophile ring in "high places" in Sydney, including established Christian churches, the Department of Children’s  Services, and the NSW Education Department. It was alleged that this paedophile ring was being protected by the NSW Police Service. Based on the subjective opinions of a pro-paedophilia organisation, Commissioner Wood’s 1997 report dismissed the existence of high-end paedophile networks. It concluded that child abuse memories could be artificially created as a result of third person suggestion, and it alleged that victims can not possibly experience dissociation and repression of traumatic memories. Commissioner Wood’s wrongful findings lacked a scientific evidence base, and ignored documented case studies and previous Australian convictions.

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From 1995 to 1997 Justice Wood conducted a NSW Royal Commission into the alleged role of NSW Police in protecting a paedophile ring. (Image courtesy smh.com.au /Bob Pearce)
 

Wood’s report referenced the writings of Elizabeth Loftus, a prominent member of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). The FMSF was established by Professor Peter Freyd and his wife Pamela, step-siblings who married each other. The Freyd’s coined the term "false memory syndrome" in response to being accused of sexually abusing their daughter, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, Jennifer Freyd.

Another founding member of the FMSF was American psychologist Dr Ralph Underwager. In June 1991, Underwager was interviewed in Amsterdam by Joseph Geraci, Editor-in-Chief of the pro-paedophilia publication Paidika: The Journal of Paedophilia.

During this interview, Dr Underwager was asked:

"Is choosing paedophilia for you a responsible choice for the individual?"

Dr Underwager responded:

"Certainly it is responsible…"

During my private hearing, I concluded with:

"God help me if I see Elizabeth Loftus in your report!"

Potential for whitewash

Legislation gags me from disclosing what was said to me during the two hour ordeal.

However, I may share the concerns I raised. This is provided the manner in which I relay these concerns does not give too strong an indication of what the commissioners said during the session. The private sessions are recorded, however legislation prevents witnesses from making their own recordings. I requested a copy of the recording transcript. Witnesses may or may not receive a copy of the transcripts.

I requested that my written Royal Commission submission be made public. The Royal Commission website states that the Commission has powers to decide that my submission should not be made public 'for reasons of fairness'. Not publicising my submission would, in my view, be unfair to victims, and beneficial to the perpetrators.

I requested to publicly testify before the Royal Commission. I may or may not be selected to for this. I had to fight just to make it to the first round of private hearings.

I was initially told I was one of the first witnesses to contact the Royal Commission and that I was at the top of the list to be interviewed in Brisbane in May. I was left out of the first round of hearings. This was until I phoned my case worker and informed her that I was going public and publishing an article on what I allege is a Tweed Shire paedophile ring. Within 24 hours I had a hearing date.

Does that sound like a transparent process?

The Royal Commission is set up for the Commonwealth Government to collect information about powerful paedophiles including, I was told prior to the private session, many high ranking police officers. What is to become of this mass of sensitive information? Dunno.

The Royal Commission is an ad hoc inquiry, in its infancy, and at the information gathering stage. Based on the resultant pool of information, the Commission will decide what steps should be taken. Some witnesses will be selected to testify at public hearings. The selection criteria for this is unknown. Institutions will be chosen for investigation and not all submissions will be investigated. Very few may indeed be chosen for investigation.

I asked the commissioners to investigate the alleged Tweed Shire paedophile ring. I also asked them:

"Do you have the power to investigate individual cases?"

and

"Do you have the power to make recommendations based on those investigations?"

The relevant Act and their terms of reference indicate they hold these powers.

I quoted Detective Bob Sullivan of the NSW Child Protection and Sex Crimes Squad. Eight years ago, he stated that only a Royal Commission had the power to conduct a proactive investigation into the alleged Tweed Shire paedophile ring and to interview reluctant witnesses. I concluded with:

"Well? We now have a Royal Commission — so let’s investigate!"

Comparisons with the Irish

A Commonwealth Royal Commission has two fundamental advantages over all other bodies of inquiry:

  • They hold significant investigatory powers and can compel evidence

  • Their investigations take place in public.

I fear these two basic advantages are under threat. This Royal Commission appears to be following the example of Ireland’s recent Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which conducted a similar national inquiry into the sexual abuse of children in Catholic schools.

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How the Tweed Daily News reported Fiona's hearing at the Royal Commission.  (Image courtesy mydailynews.com.au)
 

The Irish Government completely underestimated the number of victims of child sexual abuse. Their Commission avoided investigating the majority of allegations by selecting ‘samples’ of abusive incidents. Based on these samples, the Commission studied patterns of abuse, how institutions responded to the abuse, and finally identified weaknesses that allowed the abuse to continue.

The Irish Commission selected, based on the documentary evidence, which witnesses would testify. Over 1,000 victims testified at private hearings before two committee members. They were simply heard and not cross-examined. About 850 abuse survivors gave evidence to three investigative committee members. Most of these hearings were also private.

The Irish commission did not name individual abusers. The Irish government changed the Inquiry Act from allowing perpetrators to be named, to permitting them being named only if they had been convicted in a court of law. In the end, the commission did not even name the paedophiles who had been convicted.

The Irish Commission did not recommend any prosecutions.

The head of the Irish Commission, Justice Seán Ryan, argued that the ‘sampling’ approach sped up the inquiry. In fact, it took 10 years – from 1999 to 2009 – to complete.

Judge Ryan stated:

"By focusing on how the response was handled you don't have to focus so much on the particulars of each complaint - you don't have to hold 20 trials. The aim is always to get it as wide and thorough as possible and as sympathetic as you can devise, but you have to have an eye on efficiency."

Efficiency? What about justice?

“There’s no such thing as justice” — NSW Child Protection & Sex Crimes Squad

Child sexual abuse thrives in an atmosphere of secrecy. Victims seeking justice value transparency. Child sexual abuse survivors want the Royal Commission to conduct detailed individual investigations. They want the Commission to recommend criminal prosecutions. They want perpetrators to be named and shamed.

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Gary Willis, the man at the centre of Fiona Barnett's allegations.
 

Many victims, who have been too busy surviving their abuse to concentrate on becoming highly informed, naively assume that the Royal Commission will automatically result in people like Gary Willis (written about on IA in June) being properly investigated by the authorities.

"They should investigate every case!" is a common response.

One witness phoned me and declared:

"If the amount of evidence you gave them isn’t enough to warrant an investigation, then they won’t be bloody-well investigating anyone!"

To the average person like me – and even to a child – justice seems pretty simple. Someone does the wrong thing, they are brought to account for their actions. It’s the vibe of the thing…

However, achieving justice is not as simple as that … apparently. While the Royal Commission can compel witnesses to give evidence, they are limited in what they can do with that evidence.

From my poor understanding of the process, it is unlikely the Royal Commission will investigate Gary Willis and the alleged Tweed Shire paedophile ring. The Commission does not investigate individual cases. It appears that the institutions that attract the most submissions win an investigation. Like some kind of a perverted lottery.

I predict that the number of investigations conducted will be highly dependent on the level of government funding.

Resources allocation

I told the commissioners that, while I had no reason to doubt their sincerity and commitment, I held concerns for the people above them. Those with the power to allocate or pull funding.

Inadequate resources would have implications for the Royal Commission’s ability to investigate the overwhelming number of submissions they have already received. Prior to my hearing, I was told that 5,000 submissions had already been lodged.

Commissioners commenced private hearings in Sydney last May. They moved to Brisbane in June. They are currently in South Australia.

There is only a single panel interviewing and it is physical impossible to interviewing more than a few distressed witnesses per day. On this basis, one could see how the Royal Commission might easily span a decade.

The final reporting date has been set to initially be at the end of 2015. For people like me – who are living with the threat of retaliation from alleged perpetrators – Christmas 2015 feels like a long time to wait for Santa.

What about a 10 year wait!?

One benefit of a lengthy process is that allegedly corrupt organisations behave more cautiously than usual while the Royal Commission is operating.

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Whistleblower Snr. Det. Peter Fox's sex abuse revelations are seen as pivotal to the formation of the Royal Commission. (Image courtesy abc.net.au)
 

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the Royal Commission would take:

 

“...as long as it takes to do it right… we're talking about what could be an extensive period of time and we should not set artificial limits on getting this done properly.”

What about financial limits?

Such an overwhelming inquiry requires enormous amounts of funding. My trip alone cost the government reimbursement for my 3 hour drive, meal vouchers and parking fees, which were dramatically inflated on a State of Origin night. The Attorney-General’s Department provided a lawyer who attended my hearing. Two additional staff briefed me. A psychologist debriefed me. Staff completed other menial tasks and I was appointed a case worker.

Additionally, the Attorney-General’s Department has recently established a national legal advisory service for Royal Commission witnesses.

Multiply those costs by 5,000 and one can begin to see the full financial picture.

A Jesuit Prime Minister?

The next Commonwealth Government will have the power to cut the Royal Commission's funding. Therefore, concerned citizens might do well to examine the potential impact that the Federal election outcome may have on the Royal Commission’s effectiveness.

The Royal Commission commenced as a result of numerous allegations against the Catholic Church. The only reason the terms of reference were extended to include other institutions was because George "yes we covered up child sex abuse allegations" Pell requested the Royal Commission didn't "pick on the Catholic Church".

Should we be concerned about electing a Jesuit prime minister, in Tony Abbott?

At the Commission hearing, I provided information from a former Tweed Heads police officer who alleged that almost every single police officer transferred to Tweed Heads police station is a Catholic. This alleged over-representation of Catholics indicates that I may have engaged in battle with a covert group that victims and their advocates call "The Catholic Mafia".

(Image courtesy Craig Greenhill / Courier-Mail.)
(Image courtesy Craig Greenhill / Courier-Mail.)
 

A suggested connection between the Catholic Church and the police station that dispatched five squad cars to ambush my family is obviously disturbing. However, not as alarming as the prospect of a Catholic government.

I could not have less interest in politics. I recall in my childhood showing disdain for my cousin – who became a state MP – for preferring to watch parliamentary sittings rather than join us kids for "cane toad golf".

Following my Royal Commission hearing, I find myself more than glancing at those boring sittings.

My involvement in the Royal Commission has me questioning the implications of an Abbott Government for child sexual abuse victims. As a former Jesuit Catholic seminary student, Tony Abbott has demonstrated strong ties with the Catholic Church on more than one occasion.

First there was Abbott’s ABC Lateline interview during the 2004 election campaign, in which Abbott was asked:

“Have you met Archbishop Pell during the election campaign?”

Abbott:

“Aaah, not that I can recall.”

Interviewer:

“Not that you can recall? Because we, er, we believe that you’ve had at least one meeting with him quite recently. You don’t recall that?”

Abbott:

“When, where?”

Interviewer:

“The presbytery in Sydney.”

Abbott, belligerently:

“Err, actually, now that you mention it, I did meet with Cardinal Pell — so what?”

Are we to trust Tony Abbott’s pledge to not interfere with the Royal Commission?

A more disturbing association exists between Tony Abbott and the religious institution which was founded on the ancient cult of Mithraism — in which male child brides were married to adult males. Tony Abbott gave a character reference for father John Gerard Nestor after he was charged, sentenced, jailed, and defrocked by the Vatican for indecently assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 1991.

On 21 March 2009, Tony Abbott published a eulogy to the alleged paedophile psychologist for Catholic priests Ronald Conway. In this Abbott wrote:

'They say the old Spartan fighters used to take men lovers into battle. I know we used to laugh ourselves silly when we read about it at school...men cuddling up to one another and all that sort of stuff. But I used to sleep very close to Jim more than once in the trenches...It felt good, decent, even grand to be close…'

Excuse me while I puke.

Editor's note 28/7/13 5pm: In the above piece, we have incorrectly stated that Tony Abbott was trained at a Jesuit seminary. In fact, he went to a Jesuit run school and attended the Diocesan (unaligned) Seminary. However, it has also been pointed out that we missed mentioning that the priest was a member of influential and controversial Catholic prelature Opus Dei.

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