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Royal Commission into child abuse must have powers to investigate police

Convicted sex offender Gerard Ridsdale arrives at court in Ballarat, Victoria in 1994.

The terms of reference of the Gillard Government’s Royal Commission into institutional child abuse are yet to be determined. When the commission was announced, the Prime Minister noted that it would need to look at police responses to cases of child abuse.

This is entirely appropriate, and it is essential that any commission of inquiry is empowered not only to consider police responses, but specifically to investigate any police officers or investigations to determine the extent of police involvement in or obstruction of investigations into child abuse, should the investigations lead the commission in that direction.

Criminal activity and police protection

Systematic illegal activity rarely takes place without some form of involvement by those tasked with policing the crime. That may range from active and organised protection offered by corrupt police (see cases involving organised corrupt police protection of illegal prostitution and backyard abortionists in Victoria, the latter of which was the focus of the ABC’s Dangerous Remedy, drug dealers in New South Wales, or S.P. bookmakers in Queensland (to consider just a few local examples) to negligent misconduct, or even simply an unwillingness to take seriously allegations raised by victims.

But there haven’t been allegations against police

Amidst the recent increased attention on the latest round of allegations of child abuse within the Catholic Church, there has been little or no new suggestion on the public record of active police involvement in the abuse.

In Victoria, the police force itself has even been vocal about their concerns with the way complaints of abuse are handled and allegedly silenced by the Catholic Church - hardly what one would expect if there were widespread and systematic police involvement. In New South Wales, Detective Chief Inspector Fox, who has been at the centre of the media coverage for the last two weeks, has not claimed that police were involved in a cover-up; rather, he has alleged that abuse and obstruction of investigation into abuse within the Catholic Church has been systematic.

One can also imagine reasons why the sort of systematic and institutionalised child abuse of the kind alleged to have taken place within the Catholic Church could be less likely to be raised with police than other organised forms of criminal activity.

If so, then police protection might be less likely to be associated with this kind of crime than others. Perhaps such crimes are less likely to be reported to the police at all, given the trauma experienced by victims. Perhaps the Church’s own internal investigations, the pressure it allegedly placed on victims to remain silent, or its alleged obstruction of police investigation ensure that the police rarely have access to sufficient evidence to warrant investigation. In this case, there wouldn’t be a chance for police protection through corruption or misconduct to occur.

However, even if there are no clear allegations of police corruption or misconduct, and even if there are reasons to suspect that police were never in a position to investigate (such that corruption or misconduct could not have been an issue), there are two reasons why powers to investigate the police are still essential.

Be prepared

The bigger the problem, the more likely it is that police were involved. This is the case in the context of other illegal activities, where more systematic and organised criminal operations require police protection - the criminal activity is difficult to sustain otherwise.

This is a consistent trend that can be observed across different countries and periods, and which has been observed repeatedly in various commissions of inquiry into police corruption and misconduct, notably the Knapp and Mollen Commissions in New York and Los Angeles, and in the Fitzgerald and Wood Commissions in Queensland and New South Wales.

If any abuse uncovered by a Royal Commission turns out to be systematic and widespread, then the more far-reaching the problem, the more vital it is that police can also be investigated by any commission of inquiry. Perhaps more important than this general observation, though, is evidence that this trend does indeed apply to child abuse.

Police protection of child abuse has happened before

Cases of active police protection of child abuse are by no means unprecedented. The recent commission of inquiry into child abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland uncovered police involvement there. Nor is it unprecedented in Australia – the Wood Commission’s report in 1997 found that police protection of child abuse had been taking place in New South Wales.

In the UK, there are currently allegations that a paedophile ring may have protection from even higher tiers of public office.

Clarifying the terms of reference

Hopefully, as the terms of reference are clarified in the following weeks, we will get a clearer idea of the extent of commissions investigative powers with regards to the police. Without such powers, the risk would be that the commission only investigates a symptom, rather than the cause, of a systematic pattern of abuse.

If the result of this commission is that individuals or groups within the Church or other institutions found to have been involved in child abuse are removed from their positions and punished, but that the extent of police involvement in protecting such activity remains unexplored, then we risk leaving in place structures that will allow this problem to grow back.

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