Senior NSW police officer shredded documents from meetings with Catholic Church officials
By Suzie Smith
New South Wales Police has admitted all records of a senior officer’s involvement with a key Catholic Church body set up to deal with sexual abuse cases have been shredded.
This includes briefing papers and all documentation over a five-year period from 1998 to 2003.
The revelations come from Freedom of Information (FOI) documents obtained by the ABC’s Lateline program.
The top level group established by the Catholic Church’s bishops is known as the Professional Standards Resource Group (PSRG).
It was created in 1997 in response to the Wood Royal Commission into the police and paedophilia, and its key function was to advise the church on specific cases involving clergy and others.
Earlier this year, a NSW Police spokesman told Lateline all the information provided by the church to the serving officer was anonymous.
The names of the victims and the priests had been removed, allegedly at the request of victims who the church said did not want police involvement.
The documents revealed on Lateline were lodged by NSW Greens MLC, David Shoebridge.
They reveal that Inspector Beth Cullen, who was then a senior sergeant with the Sex Crimes Unit, shredded all documents pertaining to her role with the PSRG from 1998 to 2003.
The letter from the NSW Police that accompanied the FOI documents reads:
“Det Acting Superintendent Linda Howlett of the Sex Crimes Squad had advised the documents concerning the PSRG meetings were confidential and maintained by the Professional Standards Office of the Catholic Church.
“Inspector Beth Cullen, the NSW Police representative on the PSRG, shredded hard copies of meeting material after each meeting.
“Furthermore Inspector Cullen did not keep any documentation in relation to her work on the PSRG.”
Mr Shoebridge says there appears to be no “paper trail” of how and why this police officer was required to shred the documents.
“We need all the documents produced, and in the absence of documents, we need the police explaining to the public about how they went about destroying these documents’ evidence of crime,” he told Lateline.
“No police officer should be involved in internal church investigations about crimes. When there is a crime it should be investigated by police.”
Shredding documents ‘unusual, extraordinary’
The state’s former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Nicholas Cowdery QC, also has serious concerns.
“It is quite extraordinary because my experience has been that official police action is backed up by documents, reports and all the relevant material assembled during the official police activity,” he said.
“So for someone involved in such activity to shred documents like this I think it quite unusual and indeed extraordinary.
“There is something about shredding documents – it is to put the documents out of reach, but in the mind of the person doing it, to shred documents is to destroy them and to make them unavailable for others.”
He says he cannot think of a time when it would be necessary or appropriate for a serving police officer to shred documents of their role on a civilian body.
“No, I can’t accept to destroy evidence – which is what it amounts to – evidence of what happened, so that the person that was involved can’t refer back to the documentary evidence,” he said.
“So that person’s superiors can’t have access to a contemporaneous record that was made or preparatory documents – or documents that might have been provided by way of briefing before the meeting was organised – all that has gone.
“I have sat on numerous committees and bodies with serving police officers who were there by reason of their position in the police force, they always make comprehensive notes of what is going on, they prepare reports for their superiors, they have records they can refer back to, if there is any uncertainty or confusion about what happened, it is to protect the officer as well as the institution.”
NSW Police Minister Mike Gallacher has written to the Police Commissioner’s office asking for an urgent briefing on the matter.
Cooperation between church and police needs scrutiny
Mr Cowdery says the Police Minister must reveal to the public the exact nature of the cooperation between the Catholic Church and NSW Police.
“It is important… It is the case of the employer deciding what to do with the employee, that employee having been discovered to have committed serious criminal offences in some cases,” Mr Cowdery told Lateline.
“It may be that the employer wanted to take action just short of criminal prosecution, but the employer in that case would have to be held accountable for that decision and for that conduct as well, otherwise you might get the situation that the senior people making the decision, in relation to the priests and others, might be guilty of the offence of concealing a serious offence, of deliberately covering up an offence.
“If there was a possibility of that happening I guess one of the ways to make the prosecution for that offence more difficult would be to remove any evidence of what was discussed at the meetings.”
The director of the Professional Standards Office (PSO) of the Catholic Church, Michael Salmon, says it was the common procedure of the meetings that everyone returned the documents to the PSO.
He told Lateline this was to ensure confidential matters were not made public.
“I understand that the members of the group had decided that confidential and sensitive briefing papers would be returned to the Professional Standards Office following meetings. This continues to be the practice,” Mr Salmon said in a statement to Lateline.
“I am not aware of members personally shredding briefing documents, but I assume from time to time they may have done so if unable to return them promptly to the Professional Standards Office.
“Briefing papers from members of the group returned to the PSO are not retained as they do not form part of the formal record of meetings.”
‘It gives rise to suspicion’
But Mr Cowdery says it is concerning that the Catholic Church is the only body that retains the minutes of these meetings.
“It is pretty extraordinary that only one party to a multi-party arrangement should retain records of what happened,” he said.
“Now it leaves open the suspicion that those records could be destroyed or manipulated in some way, could be selectively used to demonstrate particular consequences and outcomes.
“It gives rise to suspicion where a full explanation might dispel any suspicion and put everything on a proper course, but we don’t know because the documents have not been released.”
A spokesperson from the NSW Police released this statement tonight:
“Original documentation concerning the meetings was confidential and maintained by the NSW Professional Standards Office of the Catholic Church.
“The only material that was shredded were copies of that original documentation, which had been circulated to members of the Church’s NSW Professional Standards Resource Group prior to each meeting.
“The circumstances surrounding the appointment of representatives from the NSW Police Force to the Catholic Church’s NSW Professional Standards Resource Group and the manner in which that group operated will be considered by the Special Commission of Inquiry.
“NSW Police Force will continue to provide full cooperation and assistance to this inquiry.
Mr Shoebridge has now referred all the documents to the federal royal commission and the special commission of inquiry in NSW.