Mr DAVID SHOEBRIDGE [7.02 p.m.]: The task of any royal commission or special commission of inquiry is to uncover the truth. This should be the sole goal of the Special Commission of Inquiry Concerning the Investigation of Certain Child Sexual Abuse Allegations in the Hunter Region. However, many observers consider that the inquiry has strayed from this path and has instead become a one-sided prosecution of Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox. When Peter Fox blew the whistle on child abuse in the Hunter region and alleged that the Catholic Church and the NSW Police Force had failed for decades to adequately protect victims or prosecute perpetrators it was inevitable his claims would be subject to rigorous examination. Fox’s allegations seriously challenged two of the most powerful institutions in our society: the NSW Police Force and the Catholic Church. Anyone watching the debate on child abuse that was unfolding in this country in late 2012 could see both these institutions were bristling under the criticism that they had failed in their duties to protect and serve.
In stepped the then Premier, Barry O’Farrell, who rushed to establish the Hunter inquiry with very narrow terms of reference and senior Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen as commissioner. The Hunter inquiry is strictly limited to inquiring into the alleged failings of the church and police in regard to the criminal child abuse by just two priests, Denis McAlinden and James Fletcher. As the inquiry has unfolded it has become increasingly clear that it is not really the Catholic Church or the NSW Police Force that is being put under the microscope; it is Peter Fox. While the Commonwealth Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has been uncovering appalling and systematic child abuse by one institution after another, the Hunter inquiry has been focussed on demolishing one man.
As a barrister I have been in trials lasting days, weeks and even months. I have represented clients during months of hearings in a royal commission and seen countless witnesses facing hours of cross-examination. In the most extreme—and rare—cases this cross-examination can last up to two or three days as issue after issue is explored in depth. Cross-examination is intended to rigorously test evidence that a witness has given. It is an unbalanced process where the barrister has all the power and the witness can be run in circles with little if any ability to fight back. At the end of two or three days of cross-examination all but the most extraordinarily robust witness is reduced to a wreck. By this stage a witness is exhausted, mentally and physically, and in danger of giving whatever answer they can to just end the barrage.
Peter Fox has spent 14 days in the witness box during the Hunter inquiry. Almost the entirety of this time has been under cross-examination from a pack of barristers representing the inquiry, the church and police. Little if any constraint has been ordered by the commissioner. The end result has been hours and hours of relentless questioning on often obscure details stretching back over decades of Fox’s eventful, stressful and extensive policing career. Nobody’s credibility can survive this kind of assault. Nobody’s mental or physical health can withstand it either.
The final insult from this abusive inquiry came on 11 December 2013 when Fox was called to give his fourteenth day of evidence. The previous evening he had spent a sleepless night deeply distressed by news that his brother had been involved in a serious accident and had suffered potentially life-threatening injuries. Despite the impact of the continued questioning, his personal distress and lack of sleep, Fox again faced up to the inquiry. Starting at 1.30 p.m. in a courtroom in Sydney the inquiry was informed of Fox’s personal situation and distress. He was advised that the commissioner understood. A senior solicitor with the inquiry told Fox that the questioning would only take a short time. When Fox asked, “What, half an hour?”, he was advised, “If that.” He was then cross-examined for five hours by five different barristers with sporadic additional questioning by Commissioner Cunneen. No apology was given. No break was granted save for allowing Fox five minutes out of the witness box to confer with his barrister in the middle of this final attack.
Fox is a tough old copper but he and his wife, Penny, who was present during her husband’s ordeal, were both seriously shaken by this. That night, having driven halfway home to their place in the Hunter, they pulled over on the F3 freeway and together they cried. Who wouldn’t? A senior counsel with long experience in commissions of inquiry informed me that it was his view that such treatment of a witness was “outrageous”. He said it was evidence that the inquiry was failing in its prime duty to uncover the truth and not to attack witnesses.
A recent leak of the inquiry’s draft findings to News Limited suggests that it will be deeply critical of Fox. Nobody watching it would ever have thought differently. But this narrow, one-eyed inquiry will soon come and go. The politician who set it up already has. For Fox and the countless thousands of survivors of child abuse who credit him for his courage the real inquiry is the Commonwealth royal commission into institutional child abuse. In stark contrast to the Hunter inquiry, the Commonwealth royal commission’s balanced, insightful, brave and respectful approach is widely applauded. Its unambiguous aim is to uncover the truth and to hold those guilty of past abuses to account. Everyone who has not been lost in the Hunter inquiry knows we have Fox to thank for that.