8 Apr 2019

Questions on conflict of interest in abuse inquiry 'shut down'

9:34 am on 8 April 2019

The government's historical abuse inquiry has been accused of shutting down questions on potential conflicts of interest and condemned as unsafe for survivors, with one senior official being described as "entirely unfit for purpose".

The chair of the Commonwealth Observer team sent to monitor Papua New Guinea's 2017 election Sir Anand Satyanand.

Royal Commission of Inquiry's chairman, Sir Anand Satyanand. Photo: RNZ / Johnny Blades

Dr Christopher Longhurst, an abuse survivor, made his comments after being invited to a meeting in Wellington to give expert input into the work of Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care and in the Care of Faith-based Institutions.

The 11 March meeting was attended by the inquiry's chairman, Sir Anand Satyanand, and its four commissioners, as well as another abuse survivor and survivor advocates.

However, Dr Longhurst said he was abruptly "shut down" when he asked questions about a potential conflict of interest of commissioners who had religious affiliations.

Dr Longhurst said when Sir Anand and commissioner Andrew Erueti disclosed they were Catholic, Sir Anand was further asked if he had personal relationships with senior Catholic clergy and if he had talked to church officials about the commission's work.

He said commissioner Judge Coral Shaw then intervened and accused Dr Longhurst of "personalising" the discussion.

"This is not the time to make this into an interrogation, if you don't mind," she told him.

Dr Erueti then said he felt "uncomfortable" with the questions.

Dr Longhurst, a survivor of clerical sex abuse suffered in Hastings as a schoolboy, told RNZ he had attempted to ask legitimate questions and raise concerns about how the commission intended to deal with what seemed like a clear conflict of interest.

"If one of the commissioners has a personal friend, and is a member of the Catholic institution, that to me would be a conflict of interest, based on relationships," he said.

"Therefore, if I was disclosing to a person - who was a friend of a person who was protecting the institution that abused me - it would be a conflict of interest, and I've never met another person who wouldn't share that view."

He said the commissioners gave him no answers and instead displayed a total lack of ability to provide a safe environment for abuse survivors to converse with the commission by shutting him down.

Dr Longhurst told RNZ the meeting had made him feel like he was on trial.

"Survivors have been shut down all our lives and to relive that experience with the commission is retraumatising. Coral Shaw is a judge. But she was not there to judge, she was there to listen... she is entirely unfit for purpose," he said.

"Granted, I am one person, but how they have treated me, could be the way they have - and I suspect they have - other people, people fearful to talk about their abuse, never mind do so in front of a Royal Commission.

"They have alienated me and it's because they are not trained in dealing with trauma and historical sexual abuse."

Dr Longhurst had agreed to take part in a promotional video for the commission, organised through the Department of Internal Affairs. He reversed his decision after the meeting as he believed the commission's work was unduly PR-focused, instead of survivor-focused.

Dr Longhurst wrote to Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin on 19 March requesting Judge Shaw and Dr Erueti be investigated over the matter and recommended they be disqualified from the commission.

He later decided he wanted nothing to do with the commission altogether. He advised survivors to stay away from the body.

"I would caution them very, very strongly to stay away," he said.

"If a survivor comes forward to tell their story they are going to get hurt and they are going to get angry. Some of the people I've met are in positions that are more vulnerable than I am."

He said Judge Shaw had claimed a Conflict of Interest Policy was on the commission's website, which proved not to be the case. After he insisted multiple times that he be sent a copy, Dr Longhurst said he received one, which he suspected was drafted after his meeting.

Commission spokesperson Mary-Jane Rendle told RNZ the policy was given to the commissioners when the commission was first established, had been revised, and then further "reaffirmed" and revised after the meeting with Dr Longhurst before being published on the website. She did not explain what changes were made.

Apology for 'distress one meeting caused'

Dr Longhurst has since received two letters of apology from Sir Anand on behalf of the commission.

The first letter apologised for the way Mr Longhurst "felt" he had been shut down, with an assurance that wasn't the intention of commissioners.

The second letter, received after survivors advocate Liz Tonks insisted the first was not substantive, stated: "We regret the way conversations in the meetings were handled and that commissioners did not allow you to complete your questions.

"You have our commitment that we will strive to improve the way we work with survivors and their advocates going forward."

RNZ asked for comment from the three commissioners, but the commission said in a statement that for privacy reasons it did not comment on individual cases.

Its statement continued: "All staff at the Royal Commission, including Commissioners, receive ongoing supervision and advice on communicating with survivors of abuse. In addition, all have had trauma-informed training, and this is ongoing.

"In February and March 2019, Commissioners held 32 separate meetings - in both Auckland and Wellington - involving more than 50 individuals and organisations who had a strong interest in the work of the Royal Commission.

"The aim of the meetings was to listen to survivors and others and hear their expectations of Commissioners and the Inquiry itself. The meetings also sought comments and input into the proposed work plan the Commissioners were developing.

"The Commission acknowledges that engaging and sharing experiences will often be traumatic and stressful. The Commission has apologised for the distress one meeting caused."

The commission did not answer questions over whether it believed its two Catholic members and its one Presbyterian member (commissioner Ali'imuamua Sandra Alofivae) presented a conflict of interest in its work.

Another abuse survivor, Whangārei Heads resident Annie Hill, told RNZ she was not surprised by Dr Longhurst's grievance.

"It fits with the way that the Catholic community have been shutting down anyone who has an abuse story, while appearing to be polite."

"I think there is a lack of experience on the state side understanding how Catholicism works and how for centuries it has managed to gain the upper hand when it is criticised...

"So, if you have Catholic people asking the questions, that makes it very complicated for a Catholic survivor to feel they will be fully heard.

"Within the culture of Catholicism everything is done with a smile, a nod and on a need-to-know basis. And that is the reason people like me had been silenced for over 27 years."

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