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Issue #1578      January 23, 2013

The wounds that would not heal

Enquiry into child sexual abuse

The terms of reference and selection of Commissioners for the Royal Commission (RC) into institutional responses to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse have been widely welcomed. The terms of reference reflect the sensitive nature of the issues and the difficulties many will have in recounting their experiences. They also give the RC considerable flexibility in how it conducts the inquiry.

For years calls by victims’ support and advocacy groups for a national inquiry have fallen on deaf ears as the cover-ups and atrocities continued. No government had the courage to stand up to the powerful church forces that stood in the way of justice. But the pain did not go away; the wounds could not even begin to heal without acknowledgement and justice. Lives continued to be destroyed. At last there is hope that their voices will be heard and appropriate action taken.

The trigger for the inquiry was the strength of public opinion following the ABC’s Lateline TV program on November 8, 2012 in which detective chief inspector Peter Fox put his life and job on the line in an interview with Tony Jones.

“I can testify from my own experience the Church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the Church,” Fox said in a letter to the NSW Premier. (The Guardian 21 -11-12)

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was forced to act, but not before consulting Cardinal George Pell, and agreeing to include other religions, groups and state institutions and so take the heat off the Catholic Church.

The response to the government’s call for submissions on drawing up the terms of reference and the conduct of the RC was overwhelming. Over 300 organisations responded within the seven days given. The government appears to have taken many of their proposals on board.

Broad scope

The RC will investigate past and current child sexual abuse in organisations with responsibility for children and may make findings and recommendations on such matters as how organisations have managed and responded to claims of sexual abuse and what they have done to identify or prevent it.

They will also recommend what organisations can do to identify, prevent and address sexual abuse of children and the failures to report it.

They will also look at what organisations should do to support survivors, to ensure victims receive justice and the question of investigation and prosecution of perpetrators.

The RC is directed to have regard to the evidence of people directly and indirectly affected by child sexual abuse and related matters. This should enable families and others close to victims and as well as victims and their advocates to be heard.

The RC will set up special units to assist with the investigation of specific cases and work closely with the police and public prosecutors so that prosecutions can be made as the inquiry continues. The RC itself will not prosecute alleged offenders.

On the question of compensation, it can make general recommendations but not decisions regarding individual cases.

Any organisation, public or private, with an involvement with children in the past or present, can be investigated. The inquiry does not extend to sexual abuse of children outside of organisations such as in the family, nor does it cover other forms of abuse of children.

The terms of reference give the Commission considerable leeway to determine its own path, using such expressions as “without limiting the scope of your inquiry”, when listing areas to be covered.

The needs of witnesses who may not wish to go public are provided for. It will be possible for material from other inquiries to be included to avoid the need for victims or their families to go through the trauma of recounting their experiences a second time.

The RC will provide an interim report by June 30, 2014 and run for three years, longer if so requested by the RC. The aim is to both give enough time for voices to be heard and at the same time enable prompt action around its early findings and recommendations.

The government has promised financial help to organisations supporting those giving evidence.

Commissioners

The six Commissioners bring a range of experience:

The chair, Justice Peter McClellan, is a senior judge in the NSW Supreme Court. He headed the Maralinga Royal Commission which investigated British nuclear testing in South Australia and has worked at the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Justice McClellan addressing the media sounded determined: “We wish to emphasise that under the Royal Commission Act, the commission has powers to compel the production of evidence including documentation and we will not hesitate in appropriate circumstances to exercise those powers.”

He said the RC “expects that those institutions which have entered into confidentiality agreements with individuals will co-operate with the commission in relation to the discovery of those materials.”

Andrew Murray, former Democrat Senator, brings direct experience of institutional care to the commission. At the age of four he was sent from England as a child migrant to Zimbabwe. He has a strong record as an advocate for the rights of institutionalised children. He was the driving force behind two Senate inquiries into the experiences of children in institutionalised “care” and of child migrants, which led to a formal government apology to the Forgotten Australians and former child migrants in 2009. He has strong views on the subject.

“There are thousands of criminals, accomplices and accessories after the fact who neglected, abused and assaulted hundreds of thousands of children, killed scores of children, and caused the suicide of many tens of thousands all over the world,” Murray said in an address to the AGM of Barnardos Australia in November 2010.

“The most harmed deserve justice. In some churches and charities the cover-up goes on. Governments need courage. In some countries governments have secured significant reparations, proper compensation has been paid, criminal perpetrators have been exposed, church files opened, and prosecutors have secured convictions.”

Robert Fitzgerald is a member of the Productivity Commission, who has produced a number of reports recommending policy on social issues. His previous positions include president of the Australian Council of Social Service, state president (NSW) of St Vincent de Paul Society, national committee member of Caritas Australia (Catholic international aid organisation) and board director of Families Australia and the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies.

Former Queensland police commissioner, Bob Atkinson, provides a link with police. He has 40 years in the police service and was Commissioner at the time of the death in custody of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. He has since expressed sorrow over how the police service handled the case which failed to successfully prosecute those responsible.

Helen Milroy is a consultant psychiatrist with a background in mental health and focus on the wellbeing of children. She is director for WA’s Centre of Aboriginal Medical and Dental Health and a descendant of the Palyku people of the Pilbara region in WA.

Jennifer Coate is a Family Court Judge, former president of the Children’s Court. Other previous appointments include State Coroner of Victoria.

Hopes high

It is vital that victims and their families and organisations representing or supporting them have the support they require if the Commission is to be successful in its undertakings.

To succeed the Commissioners must have the courage and necessary legislative and other support to take on church and other hierarchies and demand or seize from them what information they require, at the same time protecting victims and their families. McClellan sounds prepared to do this.

So far the response of the Catholic Church has not been encouraging. Following the announcement last November of a Royal Commission, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference responded by attempting to defend the reputation of the church: “It is unjust and inappropriate to suggest crimes are being – or have been – committed, without producing evidence.”

In response to Peter Fox’s claims and “bad media”, Cardinal George Pell defensively said that the church’s approach to child sexual abuse had improved, a claim categorically denied by victims’ organisations.

The Church’s response to the Royal Commission’s terms of reference was extremely guarded. There are hollow-sounding offers of co-operation along with the raising of issues of whether or not victims who have signed confidential agreements will be able to speak out. That is not to deny the genuine support for the Commission from individuals within the Church.

The question of compensation is one that will need watching. The Catholic Church alone could face billions of dollars in damages claims from victims and families of deceased victims. Those responsible must take responsibility to pay up. Taxpayers should not be left to foot the bill.

“I will believe in miracles when the cover-up is ended, files have to be opened, when the criminals, accomplices and accessories after the fact are exposed, turned over to the authorities and put in jail, when proper compensation is paid, and those who have been falsely honoured stand disgraced,” Murray said in the same speech to the Barnardos AGM.

“Perdition doesn’t cut it for me – justice must be done on earth.”  

Next article – Editorial – BHP Billiton’s colonial mentality

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