Proceedings at the New South Wales Government enquiry into clerical child sexual abuse should be rather lively when it resumes public hearings next week. Local Greens upper-house politician, David Shoebridge MLC, has obtained documents under the Freedom of Information laws, which indicate that NSW police were in the habit of routinely shredding documents provided by a Catholic Church committee on clerical abuses. This happened 60 times over a five-year period from 1998 to 2003.
At the risk of posting an overly-long article, full details of this important development are given below.
The top-level group, established by the Catholic Church’s bishops, was known as the Professional Standards Resource Group (PSRG). It comes under the auspices of Cardinal George Pell (see previous postings). It was created in 1997 in response to the Wood Royal Commission into the police and paedophilia, and its key function was to advise the church on specific cases involving clergy and others. The police liaison officer who shredded the documents was Sergeant Beth Cullen, of the Sex Crimes Unit. Shortly after her stint with the Catholic Church committee, she became Inspector Beth Cullen, an extraordinarily rapid rise through the ranks. Inspector Cullen now heads the Wagga Wagga Local Area Command.
Her initial appointment to the committee raised some eyebrows, and even more ire, among people who thought the appointment would compromise the police anti-paedophile effort. The (then) Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdrey, declared it was a conflict of interest and potentially gagging police given they were not given the names of the victims or perpetrators. Ms. Cullen not only shredded the committee’s documents, she also failed to maintain any records, herself, of proceedings.
Inspector Cullen was very much the face of child protection policy for the NSW Government. While serving with the Catholic Church committee, she gave an address to the Athletics Australia body about little athletics and the responsibilities of coaches (it is available for $5 from their website, see below). She is also familiar with keeping matters in-house. Prior to her appointment to the committee, she produced, in 1996, a confidential internal report, “Child Abuse and Child Sex Offenders: An Assessment of Risks in the NSW Policing Environment.” It should now be released to the NSW enquiry.
In her role as Manager of Strategic Support, Child Protection and Sex Crimes Squad, Inspector Cullen spoke often about the process of investigation from the initial report to the Police to the brief being given to the Office of Public Prosecutions. Presumably, she would usually omit the shredding of documentation step.
Mr Shoebridge said, on an ABC-TV “Lateline” program, that there appears to be no “paper trail” of how and why this police officer was required to shred the documents. “We need all the documents produced, and in the absence of documents, we need the police explaining to the public about how they went about destroying these documents’ evidence of crime,” he told Lateline .”No police officer should be involved in internal church investigations about crimes. When there is a crime it should be investigated by police.”
His sentiments were echoed by the (now) former, NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, in a more direct manner, saying the shredding was “unusual and extraordinary”. In the somewhat roundabout way typical of lawyers, Mr. Cowdery said: “There is something about shredding documents – it is to put the documents out of reach, but in the mind of the person doing it, to shred documents is to destroy them and to make them unavailable for others.”
According to Mr. Cowdery, records are the norm for police liaison officers on community committees: “I have sat on numerous committees and bodies with serving police officers who were there by reason of their position in the police force, they always make comprehensive notes of what is going on, they prepare reports for their superiors, they have records they can refer back to, if there is any uncertainty or confusion about what happened, it is to protect the officer as well as the institution.”
Mr. Cowdery then went on to make his position unambiguously clear: “No, I can’t accept to destroy evidence – which is what it amounts to – evidence of what happened, so that the person that was involved can’t refer back to the documentary evidence,” he said. “So that person’s superiors can’t have access to a contemporaneous record that was made or preparatory documents – or documents that might have been provided by way of briefing before the meeting was organized – all that has gone.”
He maintains that the NSW Police Minister must reveal to the public the exact nature of the cooperation between the Catholic Church and NSW Police. “It is important… It is the case of the employer deciding what to do with the employee, that employee having been discovered to have committed serious criminal offences in some cases,” Mr. Cowdery told Lateline.
“It may be that the employer wanted to take action just short of criminal prosecution, but the employer in that case would have to be held accountable for that decision and for that conduct as well, otherwise you might get the situation that the senior people making the decision, in relation to the priests and others, might be guilty of the offence of concealing a serious offence, of deliberately covering up an offence.”
“If there was a possibility of that happening I guess one of the ways to make the prosecution for that offence more difficult would be to remove any evidence of what was discussed at the meetings…. It gives rise to suspicions.”
He goes on to say: “It is concerning that the Catholic Church is the only body that retains the minutes of these meetings. It is pretty extraordinary that only one party to a multi-party arrangement should retain records of what happened. Now it leaves open the suspicion that those records could be destroyed or manipulated in some way, could be selectively used to demonstrate particular consequences and outcomes. It gives rise to suspicion where a full explanation might dispel any suspicion and put everything on a proper course, but we don’t know because the documents have not been released.”
The current NSW Police Minister says he has asked for an urgent report on the details of the shredding of documents by Inspector Cullen. He is reported as “being on the warpath” over the shredding. Mr. Shoebridge has referred the matter to the Royal Commission for consideration. NSW Police have referred it to the NSW enquiry.
In response to a parliamentary question from Mr, Shoebridge earlier in the year, the Police Minister said: “All other relevant information on the alleged perpetrator, including any previous complaints and whether their current position involved any practising ministry, for example, was provided to the meeting… It is considered that the involvement of the officer was transparent, appropriate and in the best interests of all stakeholders.”
The director of the Professional Standards Office (PSO) of the Catholic Church, Michael Salmon (Email: email@example.com), claimed it was the “common procedure of the meetings that everyone returned the documents to the PSO, or destroyed”. This was to “ensure confidential matters were not made public…. This continues to be the practice.” Further, he said, “Briefing papers from members of the group are not retained as they do not form part of the formal record of meetings.” Mr. Salmon claims that all of this was to protect victims, not the abusers.
Oddly, in Victoria, police and the Catholic Church are at each others’ throats, while in NSW they appear to be getting along just fine (except for Detective Inspector Fox, of course!)
Inspector Cullen, nor the officer who authorized her actions, have not yet been stood aside, while the matter of her document-shredding is being investigated.
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Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)