Prime Minister Julia Gillard has last night announced the Royal Commission, saying the focus of their inquiry will be on institutional responses to claims of sex abuse.
“It’s a vile thing, it’s an evil thing. And it’s done by evil people,” the Prime Minister said. Ms Gillard said there had been a systemic failure in the past to respond to allegations of child sex abuse in Australia and to protect children from it.
Ms Gillard said that the Commission will look into allegations of sexual abuse of children in care of various groups – not just the Catholic Church – but also state care and not for profit organisations. It will also look at the responses of child services agencies to allegations of abuse.
As for how long the Commission’s inquiry will take, Ms Gillard wouldn’t specify whether it would be days, months or years. She said: “It’s not knowable. I anticipate some time and it should take the time necessary.”
The Prime Minister said the terms of reference and commissioners were yet to be decided but would be worked through by relevant Government Ministers. Other types of inquiries are already under way in Victoria and NSW. This commission will not affect those.
So what is a Royal Commission?
By announcing that the Government will hold a royal commission, the Prime Minister is essentially establishing a quasi-court that can look into a specific matter, in this case, child sexual abuse. Unlike a regular court though, a Royal Commission is inquisitorial (i.e. they investigate a matter, like a detective) rather than adversarial (two parties each putting their case) in nature.
The Commission will have considerable powers that are restricted by their terms of reference (these are yet to be determined) but otherwise their powers are more thorough than a normal court of law. In practice, the Royal Commission will have the power to compel witnesses to answer claims and the usual rules of evidence won’t apply (making it easier to make an argument based on ‘hearsay’ for example).
Importantly rules that protect accused people from self incrimination are more limited than usual. Royal commissions have historically been extremely controversial and are a fairly rare occurrence in Australian politics. Once a Royal Commission is set in train, the Government essentially has no ability to stop it.
The news of the Royal Commission comes after a senior police officer made damning allegations about the Catholic Church’s concealment of child sexual abuse on ABC’s Lateline last week. Senior NSW Detective Peter Fox gave a horrifying account of the culture of cover-up he experienced when investigating alleged crimes within the church.
“I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church,” the Senior Detective Fox told Lateline.
“In many cases that I came across, one priest who had previously faced paedophile charges was donating parish money to the legal support of another priest to defend himself from those charges.”
“I had other priests that hadn’t been charged with anything removing evidence and destroying it before we were able to secure it, and we just went around in circles. The greatest frustration is that there is so much power and organisation behind the scenes that police don’t have the powers to be able to go in and seize documents and have them [the church] disclose things to us.”
Late last week on Mamamia we had a post from a man who claims that he was abused as a child, by a member of the Catholic Church. This is what Pete Dillon wrote:
I was an 8-9 year old when I was sexually abused by a member of the Catholic Church. I was an altar boy at a small parish in regional Victoria, and I was forced to commit acts that I did not understand. I had no idea what I was being forced to do. All I knew was that I knew it was wrong, I knew it did not make me feel special like the priest said it would. I did know that I was being told not to tell anyone, for fear of getting in trouble, that no one would believe me if I told them and that I was bad.
I have contemplated taking the church’s hush money, but no amount will ever give me back my childhood. My father died when I was in my early 20′s and my father never properly knew his youngest son. I could never tell my father who I was, because of what happened to me as a child.
When I told my mother, she broke down and cried. I am the second youngest of ten kids and my parents clung very firmly to their faith, it was one of the few things that they had. I made a decision not to tell them what had happened when I was a boy. My mother wished that she could have helped me through, and realised that much of what I told her made sense – she had seen the change in me from that age but never quite knew why.
We’ll keep you updated as more information about the Royal Commission and it’s ambit are announced.