The Commission’s First Year (Or: Acting Now Rather Than Later)

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Image: Counsel Assisting, Gail “Snow White” Furness addresses the Royal Commission (Source: Daily Telegraph)

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse today considered a 105 page report by Counsel Assisting, Gail “Snow White” Furness (see previous posting) resulting from the YMCA hearing earlier in the year (see previous posting). Today was its last hearing day for the year.

Earlier hearings had concerned the case of Jonathan Lord, a YMCA child-care employee who is presently in prison for his offences. The enquiry had been mostly concerned about how Lord had managed to by-pass the organization’s employee filtering system

This blog, at the time of the YMCA hearings, suggested that its CEO, Philip Hare, should not stay in his job. Ms. Furness’ report recommended that Mr. Hare be declared a “not fit and proper person” to hold his current job.  The report also recommended the same thing for the YMCA General Manager of Children’s Services, Liam Whitley (see previous posting).

Her report also said that the evidence given by senior and middle management, as to the extent to which they accepted responsibility, did not “permit confidence in their capacity to carry out the significant reforms necessary to make YMCA NSW a child-safe institution”.

Ms. Furness said Phillip Hare and Liam Whitley demonstrated “little insight” into the factors that enabled Jonathan Lord’s offending to occur, and reflected an attitude that suggests a “high risk” environment within the YMCA. Her submission read that “There is no culture of extended guardianship at the level of senior management.” Further, senior managers were accused of blaming junior staff.

Ms. Furness was so critical of the Children’s Services Coordinator at the time Lord was hired, Jacqui Barnat, that she felt Ms. Barnat should be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions, as the evidence suggested Ms. Barnat may be found by a court to have given false or misleading statements during the hearing. [Knowingly giving false evidence to a Royal Commission is an offence].

The allegedly-false statements relate to her evidence about background checks for Lord and the YMCA’s policies about babysitting children who also attended the centre.  Ms. Furness said that Lord’s “recruitment was conducted primarily by Jacqui Barnat”.

Ms. Barnat’s lawyer, Ian Temby QC, told enquiry today that she “sincerely regrets” having given false evidence, which she later corrected, and it was not her intention to mislead the commission. Her lawyer said Ms. Barnat was intimidated by the atmosphere of the Royal Commission.  Ms Barnat’s submission states that if she is punished, it could discourage other witnesses from coming forward.

The matter of being a fit and proper person became the source of some debate within the hearing. Ian Neil,  the lawyer representing the YMCA, said “the assessment of whether anyone was fit and proper to hold any position required not just an evaluation of particular conduct but of other relevant conduct and of their character.”

Just before the lunch break, YMCA lawyer, Mr Neil, said he was now instructed to say that Mr Hare, Mr Whitley and another senior manager, Mary Ann Nolan, accepted responsibility and acknowledged the evidence showed that the junior staff did not have effective training to allow them to deal with Lord and report his breaches. Mr Neil also confirmed that Ms Barnat should have had more detailed and specialized training in relation to recruitment and assessment.

After the lunch break, the YMCA’s lawyer said Ms. Furness’ assessments of Hare and Whitely, were “unfair” and that, whether a person was fit for the roles, should be based on broader conduct and on character.

After further discussion, something of a compromise appeared to have been reached. Chief Commissioner, Peter McClellan, asked if the YMCA would be troubled by a recommendation from the commission (rather than a finding) that the YMCA considered whether the men, as persons, were appropriate to the positions they held, Mr. Neil accepted this distinction. Ms. Furness said if the commission was prepared to make the finding that the YMCA reviews their appropriateness, she would not pursue it further.

Ms. Furness should be applauded for getting YMCA reforms now rather than in June 2014 when the commission’s interim report is due for release, so that no more children are endangered in the interim period. Mr. McClellan’s diplomatic choice of wording, that is a recommendation rather than a finding, will not alter the net pressure on the YMCA to reform its practices.

[Postscript: The Royal Commission will hold a further hearing on the YMCA on January 21 and will revisit the Towards Healing inquiry on January 22, before moving on to the hearings on the Salvation Army Boys’ Homes on January 28.]

Read more here:

TOMORROW: What the next hearing is about

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)

 

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