Sir Anand Satyanand offered to withdraw as head of the country’s largest ever state inquiry amid worries about a perceived conflict of interest because of his Catholic faith.

Documents obtained by Stuff show Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin rejected the former Governor General’s offer, instead asking him for a plan to combat any risk to the integrity of the Royal Commission into Historical Abuse in State Care and Care in Faith-Based Institutions.

Child abuse survivors are calling for Satyanand’s resignation offer to be accepted. They say his position risks tainting the inquiry’s credibility – already mired in setbacks.

Published in Stuff

“It’s a huge concern survivors will not come forward,” said victims advocate Paora Crawford-Moyle. “We keep saying integrity is the most important thing.

“Credibility gets turned upside down when the minister lets him stay.”

On Friday, Martin said she had full confidence in Satyanand, and the commission’s conflict of interest policy.

“Sir Anand was appointed when the Royal Commission’s terms were only about abuse in state care and he conducted the consultation process and recommended to the Government that the inquiry also cover faith-based institutions,” she said.

“He thought that his Catholic upbringing and background were well-known, but made a point of raising this matter as he wanted to be transparent. ”

She said he did “the right thing” raising it, and an atheist chair “would be a potential conflict too”.

State care abuse survivor Kath Coster said Satyanand should go.

Coster is on a survivors panel advising the Commission and is unimpressed. Meeting minutes were incorrectly recorded, travel arrangements were haphazard, and delays were regular, she claimed.

Satyanand’s continued appointment was another dent in its credibility.

“These survivors have been involved in organisations like the church who have hurt a lot of them, so to have these people at the top making powerful decisions doesn’t sit right.”

Network of Survivors of Abuse in Faith-Based Institutions spokeswoman Liz Tonks said the group had doubts about Satyanand, and any other Catholic commissioner, to be “dispassionate and unbiased”.

“What the Royal Commission apparently fails to understand is if survivors do not trust the commissioners and staff, they will not report.”

Satyanand first outlined concerns in a September 1 letter to Martin.

“I … think it’s appropriate to establish that you know I am a practicing Catholic by religion. I was brought up in a Catholic household and went to Sacred Heart College in Auckland. I have kept up associations with that school and have attended a number of its public occasions there through the years.”

He was involved in a patron’s group which helped raise $9m to rebuild Wellington’s St Mary of the Angels church.

Satyanand said he’d never had any involvement in the governance or leadership of the Catholic church, though he had known a number of Bishops in “church and social settings”.

Martin agreed Satyanand’s disclosure could give rise to potential questions . She asked Satyanand for a conflict of interest management plan for him and other commissioners, which he said he would do. He again offered to withdraw if the Minister felt it necessary.

He also suggested listing his religious background on the commission’s website, signalling he would step aside from making decisions on cases involving witnesses or participants he had an association with.

As of Friday, the commission had taken neither of these steps.

Briefings also reveal the inquiry’s expected $150-$160m budget was reduced to $80m meaning commissioners can’t travel overseas to hear evidence, hold public hearings or private listening sessions outside New Zealand, and have had IT and communications budgets slashed.

A Royal Commission spokeswoman said it was confident its conflict of interest policy protected the inquiry’s integrity. Management plans for Satyanand and the other commissioners were being worked on and would be listed once complete. People with concerns were encouraged to raise them.

By Michelle Duff
Published in Stuff
7 April 2019