Published: 18 April 2012
Author: Angela Sdrinis
The Baillieu Government parliamentary inquiry into sexual abuse
Process is fatally flawed, according to sexual abuse legal expert, Angela Sdrinis.
The Victorian Government's parliamentary inquiry into the way in which religious organisations handle sexual abuse complaints will lack the necessary powers to expose the systemic cover up that has characterised mainstream religion's approach to abuse.
The failure to appoint a Royal Commission will dismay many victims and is a missed opportunity to force organisations to come clean. It does not do justice to the dozens of victims who have been driven to commit suicide as a result of finding it impossible to obtain legal redress.
While Premier Baillieu claims that a parliamentary inquiry is preferable to a judicial inquiry because it will be able to proceed in a "less formal and legalistic manner than a Royal Commission", the reality is that a Parliamentary Inquiry is less likely to be viewed as independent. It will also lack the powers to compel witnesses and to require organisations to produce documents.
The Government will likely argue that the committee has power to call on witnesses to attend under s 28 of the Parliamentary Committees Act 1993 which states that Committees have the "power to send for persons, documents and other things."
The difficulty lies in enforcing this power.
While witnesses are likely to think very seriously about refusing to appear before a parliamentary committee, the committee itself will have no powers to compel compliance with its wishes. Rather, a committee would have to take the extraordinary step of referring the matter to parliament, which would in turn have to find a witness in contempt. This is tortuous and long winded process that is never likely to happen.
Indeed, there are few if any examples of a parliament in Australia having punished a witness for refusal to give evidence or to provide documentation to a parliamentary committee.
A Royal Commission on the other hand has full and direct powers to compel witnesses to appear and documentation to be provided. Witnesses who do not co-operate can be jailed.
On this point, it should be noted that the Cummings recommendation was clear insofar as it called for any inquiry to "have the power to compel the elicitation of witness evidence and of documentary and electronic evidence."
A Royal Commission would establish very clearly the independent nature of the inquiry. By contrast, a parliamentary committee comprising as it does politicians will inevitably be swayed by political pressure and the need for posturing. The risks of political interference and pressure being brought to bear are real and have to be recognised. And while the bona fides of all members of these committees should not be impugned, the reality is that the public perception of independence is vital.
Both victims and those members of the clergy who have not been involved in cover up or denial need a proper independent inquiry.
The compromised position being put forward by the Baillieu Government will mean that much expense and time will be incurred, only to find that the scandal of sex abuse dogging the clergy will continue to fester.