Sorry story of rape transcripts

By: Tony Koch

A WOMAN who, as a child, was raped by Rockhampton Catholic priest Reginald Durham received a telephone call a year ago from a fellow victim telling her she had confidential court transcripts about her case. She did not believe the woman, so she asked that the transcripts to be sent to her.
They had been provided to the original recipient by someone in the Queensland Premier's Office.
The documents detailed the evidence of her younger brother who told how he used to watch the priest raping his 12-year-old sister at the Neerkol Orphanage in central Queensland, and how he thought it was ``God's will'' that she was being abused in this way.
The woman had never known her brother had lived with the tormented memory of hearing his sister crying during the attacks.
To now become aware that her brother has endured that torture for 30 years and kept it from her understandably has compounded the pain this abused victim feels.
The evidence was part of a 460-page court transcript of evidence given in camera at Rockhampton.
Durham, who died aged 86 last December, had been charged with 21 counts of indecent dealing between 1945 and 1975 and a single count of rape in late 1966.
He was convicted in 1999, but the conviction was set aside on appeal. The Mental Health Tribunal subsequently ruled he was unfit to stand trial.
The material contained in the statements about the abuse was personal and distressing.
It took this woman nine months of negotiations with Peter Beattie's Office to elicit an apology for the illegal dissemination of the confidential court records.
Victims and recipients of the documents contacted a senior Courier-Mail reporter last week expressing their concern. When Beattie's office was contacted, he said the transcript had been sent to the first victim ``in good faith'' and it ``was not apparent that the proceedings had been held in camera and nothing to suggest the transcript should not be distributed''.
The written response added that the matter was referred to the Criminal Justice Commission ``who found that the actions of the officer who provided the transcript could not amount to official misconduct''.
Beattie said he personally apologised to a female victim, as did the officer who released the material. But several questions remain unanswered. The first is why his office had possession of or access to confidential court documents, when they had no standing in the hearing.
Is it the case that the court registrar was rung by Richard Cleal of the Premier's Office and asked to supply the material, and the court official thought he could not refuse? He or she would certainly have known the matter had been heard in camera.
Transcripts from open court can be obtained for $3.50 a page. Material given in camera is restricted to the parties involved. Does the Premier's Office provide free court material to constituents who ask for assistance?
A spokesperson for Peter Beattie told me the documents were obtained by Cleal ``legitimately and openly''.
That cannot be so. There is no ``legitimate or open'' avenue available.
It is as blatant a contempt of the court and justice system as could be imagined. It is an appalling abuse of the separation of powers that bind Westminster democracy.
Yet the response of the Premier's Office is to give an apology to the victims (quite correctly) and to accuse The Courier-Mail of exacerbating the victim's pain by publishing the Government's ``mistake''.
But this has the potential to be more sinister than a ``mistake''. Does the Premier's Office have the power to demand confidential court documents to which they have no legal right?
There is no suggestion that the Premier knew about the actions of Cleal, or that he condoned it in any way. It seems he acted with haste to rectify the ``mistake'', asked that the material be returned, and apologised -- even if it took nine months.
The ABC last week sought to follow up the issue, but was convinced by spin doctors any wider publication of would ``further distress'' victims. The attempt to minimise the political fall-out speak volumes about Beattie's minders.
Why weren't these victims treated with appropriate sensitivity -- paid a personal visit, with the official accompanied by a psychiatrist to give comfort and assurances?
It was done by letter and telephone as if it were an innocuous problem -- not involving people traumatised to the point of suicide since first they were abandoned and placed in the ``care'' of the Neerkol orphanage and the evil Durham.
The official explanations about this entire issue fall far short of acceptable. The people of Queensland deserve to know the full extent of the Government's access to, and willingness to obtain, private information to which it has no legal entitlement whatever.
Tony Koch is an assistant editor for The Courier-Mail