Australia’s monumental child sex abuse royal commission concluded on Friday with the final report handed to the Governor-General and released to the public.
The significance of this can’t be overstated.
It’s a momentous occasion for all child sexual abuse survivors who suffered at the hands of those in institutions who were meant to care for them. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was globally the first of its kind and is the largest royal commission in Australia’s history.
In the almost five years since the first sitting in April 2013, thousands of victims have shared their stories of abuse, as hundreds of institutions – and the staff within them – were scrutinised on their complacency and complicity in acts of sexual abuse, in their willingness to protect perpetrators, while ignoring and neglecting victims.
Today’s report is just one of several that have come out throughout this process, and it details horrific accounts of abuse and equally horrific responses to it, as well as – importantly – a comprehensive list of recommendations for allowing justice for victims and ensuring future children are protected.
Numbers you need to know.
More than 15,000 survivors or their relatives contacted the commission in its five years of operation, pointing to alleged abuse in an estimated more than 4000 institutions.
However, the true number of victims of institutional child sexual abuse cannot be known. It’s thought as many as 60 per cent of victims never disclose the abuse, while it takes those that do on average 20 years to tell someone.
Listen: “This idea is not coming from a bad place. It’s coming from a scared place.” says Mia Freedman. (Post continues.)
There were 8013 private sessions with those abused, plus more than 1300 written accounts from survivors. There were also 2559 referrals to police, with hundreds of matters under investigation and, so far, 230 prosecutions commenced. Many alleged perpetrators have died and are unable to pay for their crimes.
Throughout the commission’s 57 public hearings over 444 days, it heard thousands of accounts from victims and other witnesses.
These men and women told of shocking abuse and it was impossible not to recognise a pattern between unrelated cases, where perpetrators would bully, coerce and manipulate their victims into keeping the abuse a secret.
They also spoke of the implications of the abuse that followed them long into adulthood, where again a pattern emerged. Denied a happy and safe childhood and instead subjected to horrific sexual acts, these people were left traumatised, in many cases resulting in adult afflictions such as trouble forming relationships and various mental health issues. Some chose to take their own lives.
One victim said: "As a victim, I can tell you the memories, sense of guilt, shame and anger live with you every day. It destroys your faith in people, your will to achieve, to love, and one’s ability to cope with normal everyday living."
The commission also found that an institution's poor response when a victim told of their abuse could significantly contribute to their trauma. On the other hand, a decent response could help to alleviate their pain.
What is being recommended?
The final 17-volume report contained 409 recommendations. Of these, 189 had not been included in earlier reports.
Some of the key recommendations include:
Changes to the law.
- Creating Australia-wide laws requiring all adults to report known or suspected child abuse in religious and other institutions.
- Legislating failing to report abuse as a punishable crime.
- Ensuring the laws cover clergy who fail to report abuse admissions made during religious confession.
Changes to the church.
- That the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should ask the Holy See to consider introducing voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy, so priests could choose to be celibate or choose to be sexually active.
Changes to government.
- Establishing a new national office for child safety, within the department of prime minister and cabinet. This office would evolve into a stand-alone statutory authority within 18 months.
- Establishing a new federal minister responsible for mitigating risks of abuse, and working with states and territories to keep children safe.
New ways to help and protect children.
- Creating a new national framework for child safety by 2020.
- Establishing a new national website and helpline to report child abuse, education for children and parents, including in pre-schools, and help for adults who believe they're at risk of becoming abusers.
Compensation for victims.
Nothing can undo or make up for the damage caused to victims' lives and wellbeing. However, it has been acknowledged by many that compensation is important.
Child safety advocate Dr Cathy Kezelman put it like this when asked by Mamamia: "What this is about is a population of people who have not received anything fair and just. Their lives were irrevocably changed when they were children and they've often then been repeatedly traumatised in seeking help and seeking justice."
In November 2016, the Federal Government announced a Commonwealth Redress Scheme for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.
This year it committed $33.4 million in the 2017–18 Budget to establish the scheme, which is set to commence in early 2018.
It is open to all those abused in commonwealth institutional settings, which therefore does not include church organisations or state or territory-run organisations. However, state, territory and non-government institutions are able to opt-in to the scheme and provide support for victims. Several states are close to opting in, while South Australia has indicated it will not.
The scheme would provide up to $150,000 to each victim, as well as offering counselling and psychological services. For more information, visit this Department of Social Services website.
The responses so far.
The Federal Government has announced it will provide more than $52 million to the national redress scheme and that it will set up a task force to coordinate the royal commission's recommendations and track progress in achieving them.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he wanted to "thank and honour the courage of the survivors and their families who've told, often for the first time, the dreadful stories of abuse that they received from people who actually owed them love and protection", acknowledging how difficult it would have been.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard was the leader who established the royal commision in November 2012. Ahead of the report being handed down, she warned the current government, church and other institutional leaders, that Australians "won't tolerate" inaction on the commission's recommendations. On Friday, she thanked the commission in a statement on Twitter.
The Catholic archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, said in a statement he would need time to "digest" the report, but vowed it would "not sit on any shelf".
"I will study the findings and recommendations carefully, and then provide a detailed response as we discern, with the rest of the community, the best way forward."
"If we are to be worthy of people’s trust we must demonstrate that the rights of children to be safe, heard and responded to appropriately are always respected," he said, adding they still have "much to learn".
Meanwhile, the head of the Anglican Church in Australia, Melbourne Archbishop Dr Philip Freier, admitted the church had been "slow to grasp the extent or severity of abuse" and credited the royal commission with educating them.
He apologised to victims and said the church had already implemented changes, including setting up mechanisms for it to join a national redress scheme, and said it would make further improvements to its systems, protocols and procedures in response to the commission's final report.
What happens next?
Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of Blue Knot Foundation, an organisation that helps adults recover from childhood trauma, says there are three key actions she hopes to see come out of this historic investigation. Recommendations within the commission's report echo these requests.
1. The redress scheme includes all relevant organisations.
Dr Kezelman told Mamamia all victims need to be able to access compensation, not just those abused in commonwealth institutions, and she called on all relevant organisations to opt-in to the national redress scheme.
"This is about institutions taking their moral responsibility to acknowledge the harm that was done on their watch and to do the right thing for victims and survivors."
2. Changes are made to create truly child-safe institutions.
"It's very important for children to be safe and protected in institutions and obviously that's the core of what this commission has been about," Dr Kezelman says.
To ensure the commission lives up to its core purpose, Dr Kezelman is calling for Working with Children check requirements, and mandatory reporting laws, to be uniform across the country, rather than the "jigsaw" that currently exists state-to-state.
She says the time of institutions operating within "a law unto themselves" needs to end, and that from now on organisations need to be open and transparent when dealing with the, regretfully but hopefully only rare, cases that children are harmed.
"And that when children are at risk of harm or if there are complaints about children being abused that they are taken seriously, that children are believed, that crimes are reported, and an appropriate justice process is conducted, and that records are well-kept so that this is not lost along the way."
3. The criminal justice system and civil litigation is overhauled to make it easier for victims to report abuse and pursue justice.
Currently, the process of reporting allegations of abuse to authorities and seeking justice through courts, is fraught with roadblocks and opportunities for retraumatisation, Dr Kezelman says.
She says some victims have described the legal process as "worse than the original abuse".
"There's been a lot of lack of understanding from legal and justice personel around what trauma means and how it affects people and how it affects the ability of people to provide a narrative and to be accurate with chronology.
"It's really important they have that knowledge and understand how potentially retraumatising the current systems are."
She says in order for this to be achieved, all police and legal professionals, such as lawyers and judges, should undergo comprehensive training. She also commended changes to the statute of limitations that are already being made.
Dr Kezelman told Mamamia it was so important that those with the power to enact the commission's recommendations and continue the work they started, wield everything at their disposal to do so.
"The world is looking to Australia to lead the way, to show that power and hierarchy are no longer protections against the perpetration of child sexual abuse, that child sexual abuse is a crime, that children are never to blame and that children need to be kept safe and protected, and that survivors need to believed, supported and have fair and just pathways to justice and redress."