Commission ran background checks without consent

Survivors of state abuse on an advisory panel were shocked to learn a convicted sex offender had attended their gatherings. Now they have found out security checks have been run on them without their knowledge. And, as the mess deepens, Tracey Martin pulls in those leading the royal commission for a 'please explain'.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care has confirmed it ran security background checks on members of the survivors advisory group without telling them, or gaining their consent.

Newsroom understands these checks contributed to the commission learning the nature of the criminal history of a convicted sex offender, who had been allowed access to sexual abuse survivors.

On Tuesday, Newsroom reported a man with convictions of child sexual abuse had been at meetings and gatherings with members of the commission’s survivor advisory group. The group includes people who were sexually abused while in state care, as children.

Members of the group said learning the nature of the man’s convictions was re-traumatising, and his presence had posed a risk to their physical and mental safety. Another survivor told Newsroom she had lost confidence in the process, and no longer trusted the commission with her story.

The man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is the partner of one of the members of the group.

The commission knew in May the man had a criminal conviction that required him to disclose his whereabouts to police. But the commission did not ask the nature of his convictions until August.

Commissioner Paul Gibson said police vetting was not initially carried out because “abuse in care can have far-reaching ramifications across a person’s life which can sometimes include criminal convictions and incarceration”, and they did not want to create barriers to people participating in the group.

Following media reports of the man’s access to the survivors, the commission said it had commenced formal vetting, and was in the process of asking members of the group for consent.

Jacinda Ardern and Tracey Martin both say trust in the Royal Commission has been eroded, and Martin is currently seeking answers and reviewing her options in order to restore the confidence of survivors and the public. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

For two days, the commission refused to answer specific questions about whether any vetting or background checks had been conducted without gaining consent from, or informing, members of the survivor group.

On Wednesday, a commission spokesperson said “no formal vetting of the survivor advisory group has been done without their consent. As of Monday, we have started that process”.

Upon further questioning, the spokesperson said: “We had previously conducted background checks for security reasons.”

They refused to elaborate on what the background checks entailed, when they were carried out, and on whom. The spokesperson said the commission would not provide any further comment at this stage.

Members of the survivors advisory panel said they understood the commission had carried out checks on them, but they were never notified of these checks by commission staff, or asked for their consent.

Some members of the group said they understood these checks contributed to staff learning the nature of the man’s convictions.

But the commission said the man voluntarily disclosed the nature of his conviction when asked at a face-to-face meeting in August.

The new managers of the group met with all of the members face-to-face after starting in the job, but not all were asked to disclose the nature of any criminal convictions.

The group was due to meet on Tuesday and Wednesday this week but both meetings were called off, despite people travelling from around the country.

“It just feels like they’re quite happy to hang us out to dry if it’s going to absolve their responsibility.”

Group member Jane Stevens said she had never been told about any background checks, or what they involved.

Along with others, she was told on Tuesday that everyone in the group would be required to undergo vetting. She was yet to give her consent.

“This seems like a butt-covering exercise,” Stevens said.

“It’s really upsetting that the response from the commission to a paedophile being able to have access to our panel is that they’re turning around and saying we need to be screened.”

Stevens said she expected more from Gibson - the group's sponsoring commissioner.

Any vetting should have been flagged and done at the very beginning when the commission sought expressions of interest, so everything was transparent, and survivors could be kept safe, she said.

To find out some form of a background security check had been carried out, without their knowledge was “hurtful and disrespectful”.

“Again we’ve been kept in the dark and treated disrespectfully,” Stevens said.

“It just feels like they’re quite happy to hang us out to dry if it’s going to absolve their responsibility.”

“It is an independent royal commission but it is fair for the Government and the public to have expectations that the commission maintain the confidence of the people it’s working alongside.”

The group was now waiting to see what came out of the ‘please explain’ meeting between the minister in charge of the inquiry, Tracey Martin, and the four commissioners.

Over the past two days, Martin has repeatedly spoken about her loss of confidence in those leading the commission and their decisions.

She said she was “deeply dismayed” at the series of events.

Speaking from New York, Jacinda Ardern said the commission had to rebuild the faith of survivors.

“It is an independent royal commission but it is fair for the Government and the public to have expectations that the commission maintain the confidence of the people it’s working alongside.”

But the independent nature of the royal commission, which survivors had asked for, meant Martin’s powers were limited.

Upon learning the news on Tuesday, she sought advice on her powers, and what action she could take in order to restore confidence in the inquiry.

She was told the only person who could remove a commissioner was the Governor-general, and the threshold was high.

Martin met with the four commissioners on Wednesday afternoon to ask them to explain how the situation came about, and who knew what (and when).

Now she will be weighing up their responses in order to decide whether they have failed in their duties, and if so, whether it reaches the threshold to remove a commissioner.

No commissioners have been removed from a royal commission in New Zealand before, and in order to do so Martin would need to get Cabinet approval to go to the Governor-general, and recommend the removal.

Where to get help:

Rape Crisis - 0800 88 33 00 (Will direct you to a nearby centre), follow link for information on local helplines

Victim Support - 0800 842 846 (24hr service)

The Harbour, online support and information for those affected by harmful sexual behaviour

Women's Refuge (For women and children) - crisis line available on 0800 733 843

Safe to talk - 0800 044 334, text 4334 or web chat

Male Survivors Aotearoa (For men) - follow link for regional helplines

If you or someone else is in immediate danger call 111.

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