Looking back: the 2013 Special Commission of Inquiry into child sexual abuse in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

The Special Commission was set up after Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Peter Fox of the Maitland police went on ABC’s Lateline in November 2012 alleging “evil paedophilia within the Catholic Church”, and cover-ups by the Catholic Church and the Maitland-Newcastle police.

When opening the Inquiry’s public hearings on 13 February 2013 Commissioner Cunneen SC stated:

“The sexual abuse of children should no longer be a crime for which the conspiracy of silence continues to the grave. Child sexual abuse by a priest involves a gross breach of trust of the highest magnitude. It breaches the trust of the victims and their families in a manner that is reprehensible and may cause irreparable harm.”

The scope of the inquiry was limited to DCI Fox’s allegation that he was forced to cease his investigation into the Catholic Church covering up allegations of child sexual abuse and if so, whether that was appropriate, and his allegation that the Catholic Church hindered or obstructed investigations into alleged child sexual abuse against Catholic priests in Maitland/Newcastle.

The Special Commission hearing lasted 92 days and heard evidence from around 50 victims and their family members.

The inquiry delved in depth into the allegations of child sexual abuse perpetrated by Father Denis McAlinden, and Father James Fletcher. The Commission revealed a staggering history of decades of child sexual abuse, which was enabled by the Catholic Church’s secrecy and illogical perception that moving the priests from one parish to another then another and another, would stop them offending. It didn’t stop them. In fact, it allowed them to abuse more children.

From the Commission’s inquiries it is clear that there are also many more victims than we know about. Father McAlinden worked for the Diocese for 43 years. In 1993 the records show that McAlinden admitted to a church official that he was sexually abusing children in 1976. In a letter to Bishop Malone dated 5 December 1995 McAlinden reported that ‘he would have heard no less than 10 thousand confessions’ at a San Pablo Colleges complex overseas. Those victims, and there is no doubt that a predator like McAlinden would have taken advantage of such an opportunity, are on the Catholic Church’s hands. They knew what he was and they told no one.

For 43 years he was active in the Catholic Church.

The Commission received evidence that Father Fletcher began sexually abusing altar boys in the 1970s, while he was working at St Joseph’s in East Maitland, and that the Diocese knew about it from at least 1976. Fletcher was not stood down until March 2003, 27 years after the Catholic Church knew that he was a child abuser.

On 6 December 2004, Fletcher was found guilty nine charges of child sexual abuse. In sentencing, Judge Armitage that Fletcher continued ‘to protest his innocence in the face of some of the most compelling evidence I have heard in a case such as this’. He was sentenced to imprisonment for almost 10 years, but died in 2006 before he finished serving his sentence.

The Special Commission concluded that Bishop Malone had acted inappropriately in alerting Fletcher to the existence of the police investigation and the identity of the complainant.

One man who was abused by Fletcher provided the Special Commission with a statutory declaration describing the impact of the abuse on him and his life:

“Is anyone able to understand that what happened to me was not an event, or even a series of events, but rather a reshaping of who I am – a manipulation of me for someone else’s amusement – that this is not my history but my every day? There are things I can never have, things I can never get back, and I grieve for them. I can never make some choices for myself. I cannot choose who to have my first sexual encounter with. I cannot have anything like a normal sexual development. I can never have the girlfriends I did not have. I can never make up for years of guilt, and self-loathing or my certainty that I was a willing partner in my sinfulness. Toughest of all is the understanding that there are some things I will never know. Who I might have been without Jim Fletcher – how much of who I am today is shaped by him and his church? I will never know exactly how my abuse has impacted me. So I am left with a never ending search for answers, and an ongoing quest to create a “me” which I can be happy with.”

Despite what some might call DCI Fox’s good intentions, the Special Commission found that:

  • there was no basis for Fox’s assertions of collusion or concealment by Bishop Malone.
  • there was no credible evidence that Burston, Saunders and/or Harrigan colluded in relation to their respective police statements provided for the Fletcher investigation.
  • There was no supporting evidence of concealment and collusion by the Catholic Church members in relation to the police investigations. DCI Fox was wholly unjustified in making these assertions.
  • There was no evidence to support that there was a group of senior police in the Northern Region Command claim, who were a ‘Catholic mafia’. DCI Fox’s claims were wholly unfounded.
  • DCI Fox had developed an obsession about both the Catholic Church and alleged conspiracies involving senior police.

When the Commission pointed out the inconsistencies between the evidence and DCI Fox’s allegations, he was unable to satisfactorily explain the inconsistencies. DCI Fox gave unsatisfactory and internally inconsistent evidence which was determined to be implausible and untruthful.  The Commission stated that DCI Fox was prone to exaggerate aspects of his evidence and that he had engaged in conduct that was inconsistent with the integrity required of a police officer.

While it is clear that DCI Fox’s allegations were largely unfounded, something good did come from his appearance on Lateline. On 11 January 2013 the Royal Commission was established and has now held 5,502 private sessions with survivors and have referred 1,606 matters to police.

Given what was uncovered by the Special Commission, the Royal Commission’s hearing scheduled for late August 2016 will have their work cut out for them. There are 29 victims who gave evidence to the Special Commission’s inquiry who have given consent for their material to be referred to the Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission has a different mandate this time round. They will be focused on the response of the Catholic Church to allegations of child sexual abuse and the experience of survivors. In any event, it is clear that the Catholic Church has a long and dirty past of keeping complaints of abuse secret.

It’s time that the Catholic Church reveal their dirty little secrets, for it’s not the survivors who should feel shame, but the Church.


Sherilyn Dunkley

Senior Associate


Image: Maciej Czekajewski/Shutterstock.com