“You have ignited a spark of hope in the darkness that surrounds me, as I shuffle through this life of shattered dreams and lost aspirations.”
Those are the words of a survivor, penned in a letter to Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
This was just one voice among the thousands that contributed to the harrowing, five-year enquiry. One among the 42,041 calls, 25,96 letters and emails, 8013 private face-to-face sessions that lead to 2575 people being referred to authorities and informed the 409 recommendations released by the Commission on Friday.
While it is them – the men and women who wrote, called, spoke – that deserve our praise, we should also acknowledge the person who gave them someone who would listen, who would advocate for them.
It was on November 12, 2012, that the former Labor Prime Minister formally requested what was decades in the making and years overdue: a national enquiry into the way religious organisations, not-for-profit bodies, state care providers, police and child protection agencies had handled child sexual abuse.
The stories had been seeping out for years. Gerald Ridsdale, a priest from Ballarat who assaulted more than 65 children by 1988, was bounced from parish to parish as allegations emerged. Father Michael Glennon who assaulted a 10-year-old girl and was jailed but never defrocked. Dennis McKenna, a sex offender whose abuse of teenage boys at a hostel in Katanning, WA, went unchecked for 15 years.
But it was explosive allegations by senior New South Wales police investigator, Peter Fox, that the Catholic Church had covered up evidence involving paedophile priests that compelled Gillard to act.
“Too many children have suffered child abuse… they’ve not only had their trust betrayed by the abuser, but other adults who could have acted to assist them have failed to do so,” she told the media at the time.
“There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil.”
While it remains to be seen how the institutions that enabled that culture will respond to today’s recommendations, it is the scope, the diligence, the trust the Commission established with survivors that has become the global standard for other nations that have endured a similar shame.
As Gillard told ABC’s 7.30, “They want to know how we did it, really. Because this is the one that worked, the royal commission that actually worked to do what the nation needed it to do.”
Of course, critics will be quick to point out that Gillard had previously expressed her opposition to a Royal Commission, that she thought it inappropriate. But this was because she was nervous it wouldn’t work, that survivors would – again – be betrayed by people who were meant to act their interest.
“But ultimately I came to the decision that it would offer more healing than its potential capacity for hurt,” she told ABC. “That ultimately, for survivors, being listened to was the thing that they wanted.”
It was. More than 1200 witnesses gave testimony over the course of 400 days, some telling stories they had never before uttered to another human being. Yes, there was anger, shame, trauma in their accounts. But there was also relief, healing, empowerment, “a spark of hope”.
So whatever comes of today’s report, thank you Julia Gillard for doing what so few leaders can; thank you for changing your mind.