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A Royal Commission into child abuse – how do we measure its effectiveness or ‘success’?

Since Monday’s announcement of the creation of a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse there has been some discussion about what this might achieve. In short how will a Royal Commission be different…

Cardinal George Pell says he will support the Royal Commission into child abuse - but how will we know whether it has been effective or not? Paul Miller / AAP

Since Monday’s announcement of the creation of a Royal Commission into institutional child abuse there has been some discussion about what this might achieve.

In short how will a Royal Commission be different from other forms of public inquiry? What will be the outcome for survivors, alleged perpetrators and the institutions which supported or allowed such abuse to take place?

Already commentators have raised concerns about whether such a process will be too traumatic for survivors, whether it will be unduly focused on the Catholic Church, whether the work of the Commission will result in convictions, and so on.

In this context we need to understand the purpose of a Royal Commission into this complex and sensitive area as well as how we might measure its long-term success.

While some of the answers to these questions will rest on the terms of reference for this inquiry, they also directly relate to the needs of adult survivors of institutional child abuse who have been calling for a royal commission for over five years.

A useful way to articulate the parameters of success is provided in the work of the then Law Commission of Canada in its 2000 report, Restoring Dignity: Responding to Child Abuse in Canadian Institutions.

In that report the Law Commission canvassed a range of ways in which governments may respond to institutional child abuse (ranging from traditional civil and criminal actions, public inquiries, and ex gratia payments through to redress schemes) and assessed them across key criteria reflecting the needs of survivors.

While individual survivors have different experiences and therefore different needs – the Law Commission identified commonality across the following:

• Respect, engagement and informed choice

• Fact-finding

• Accountability

• Fairness

• Acknowledgment, apology and reconciliation

• Compensation, counselling and education

• Needs of families, communities and peoples

• Prevention and public education.

Applying these criteria as a way to assess the potential success of the Royal Commission, we can see that from the viewpoint of survivors the question is not so much whether convictions result (although for some this will be important) but rather the process, the way in which the Commission will handle its brief, the provision of a space and support for survivors to tell their stories and to be believed, and a commitment to non-repetition.

Some convictions may indeed result from the work of the Commission, but the scant history of convictions for these harms to date does not bode well. Already the criminal legal system has found it difficult to respond effectively to these harms, running into hurdles at all stages: from reporting, investigating, charging and conviction, right through to sentencing.

Despite their lasting impact, such harms often stem from conduct that took place many years (indeed, decades) ago. In “historical” child abuse cases such as these, there are often no living witnesses, or the witnesses who are still able to give evidence may find that their recollection is poor due to the passage of time, and other evidence may have been destroyed.

In addition, many survivors of institutional child abuse have gone on to lead difficult lives as a result of the abuse; for example, some have become dependent on drugs and alcohol, had their own interactions with the criminal justice system as offenders, or found it difficult to hold down secure employment and accommodation. These factors often mean that some survivors do not appear as “good” witnesses in terms of how the legal system assesses credibility. Taken in combination, these factors may well mean that in many cases the prosecution’s burden of proving its case “beyond a reasonable doubt” will be insurmountable.

This difficulty can be clearly illustrated in the context of the revelations of extensive sexual and physical abuse arising from the Grandview School for Girls in Ontario, Canada.

In the early 1990s two survivors of the Grandview School for Girls revealed publicly the abuse that they suffered whilst institutionalised at the school. This led many other women to come forward and make reports to the police. What followed was one of Ontario’s longest police investigations necessitating the creation of a specific police unit to undertake the investigations. Despite this focused investigation, and the laying of multiple charges against a small number of alleged offenders, only two convictions resulted.

This should be seen in the context of the fact that the Grandview Survivors Support Group at the time numbered over 200, and that by 1998 over 320 women had participated in the Grandview Agreement, a redress scheme negotiated with the Ontario Provincial Government in 1994.

The effectiveness of the Royal Commission should therefore be seen in terms of its support for survivors to present their evidence (here a consideration might be given to the structure adopted by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in Ireland which had both confidential and investigative arms), the way in which it will deal with the extent of publicity such a Commission is likely to attract, and the way in which the Commission will see its brief in terms of transparency, creating a historical record of events, ensuring accountability and articulating a way forward.

The great strength of a Royal Commission is to look beyond individual cases to the systemic context in which these harms took place.

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  1. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

    Hopefully we are getting to the stage where those who have survived child abuse only need to tell their story twice - once to the police, once in the courts.

    Though far from perfect, we are having some success in convicting those who did the abuse.

    Where I think the Royal Commission should focus is not on the abusers, but those people and organisations who protected the abusers. So this includes the police (and possibly courts and politicians) who made it hard in the past (and maybe still) for those who have been abused to get justice.

    The stories of those abused provide the heartbreak, but most of these stories are not new. What we don't know is who and how enabled the abusers to get away with it for so long. That is what we need a Royal Commission to find out.

    1. Alicia Appleby

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Let us not be side tracked about effects.......survivors have called for this enquiry and those who are able to participate should be able to tell us enough to ensure protection and safety of others.
      It is not an excuse to not allow enquiry to be watered down.
      Institutions like churches, and having said that family courts need to be investigated.

      Survivors will need support, as well as after attending investigations to support them.

      Let us stop protecting abusers.. The benefits far outweigh anything else and laws should protect children from the various child abuse and pedofile rings.

    2. Claire Lewis

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      I agree Michael with everything you say above.

      There is one area though which is not getting addressed through the media at this time and that is the practices of the family courts of Australia. What most people do not realise is that in these court cases, they are predominantly about children who are being abused and that often includes sexual abuse by the father.

      In my situation, (and I am one of- how many, I don't know), my child disclosed sexual abuse to me and after inadequate investigations…

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  2. Peter Andrew Smith


    "The great strength of a Royal Commission is to look beyond individual cases to the systemic context in which these harms took place."

    Hopefully a key measure of success for the Royal Commission will be a statutory “blue card" system for institutions to run alongside the blue card system for individuals.

  3. Frank Golding


    Michael Wilbur-Ham makes an important point when he says: "What we don't know is who and how enabled the abusers to get away with it for so long." However, he is only half right. There is a lot of evidence pointing to answers to those questions; but it's never been formally tested by an authoritative and impartial body. The royal commission may do that for us.

    On the other hand, Michael is way off the mark when he claims that "The stories of those abused provide the heartbreak, but most of these…

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    1. Aaron Troy Small


      In reply to Frank Golding

      What would be a good benchmark of the effectiveness of the Commission? I suggest jail sentences for those who worked assiduously to obfuscate the truth and denigrate the people alleging abuse. For those involved in covering up proven instances of abuse and in enabling established pedophile priests and clergy to continue abusing children. That would be a true measure of success and an incredibly useful deterrent.

  4. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. In reply to Grant Dinse

      Comment removed by moderator.

  5. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    While I don't discount there are personal benefits for survivors in telling their stories, surely the gold standard for judging the success of the Royal Commission will be if children are safer because of it.

    And that best way to make children safer would be to identify what represent the greatest threat to them and how to identify these threats as earlier as possible.

    I have suggested that the Catholic education system undertake a broad-based comprehensive interviewing of all children at specific…

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  6. Tony P Grant


    Firstly, the Roman Catholic Church... why? Well, the fact that our next PM maybe a person who has a weekly audience with Cardinal Pell the leader of RCC in Australia! There have been more than one incidence of Mr Pell talking down any inquiry except the ongoing internal "reviewing" under his control! Mr Abbott has on many occasions "defended all things RC". The many cases that have been brought forward has involved people of RC authority. What now should be said is that many other"denominations…

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  7. Samilya Muller

    Teacher Aide/ volunteer

    This means a lot to me, as being one of the abused and a ward of the state, and I was asked by the Rockhampton Police to be a wittness to a priest, after the court case told he was too old to stand trial, no one asked how I felt that day or came to see what happen afterwards, left to feel misplaced and forgotten just like the baby left and abandon at the orphanage I was in, I am still an orphan, with children who don't want to undetstand why their mother was left with so much post traumatic distress, and other problems dealing with my mental state, this royal commission should have happen years ago, I am proud to be a survior and to stand up and talk.

    1. Grant Mahy


      In reply to Samilya Muller

      Good on you Samilya. I believe the reason so much of this has been allowed to occur is because until recently too many of us have remained silent or silenced through the shame that too often we feel or facts are hidden by instituions for very obvious reasons. I think it is important that the horrors of child abuse are spoken about so that people understand what survivors go through and address very real system failures to protect children in the future. Like you I am extremely happy that Australia sees fit to hold a commission. It has taken a philanthropist to donate 80 million in NZ to ensure an inquiry is held there. And yeah I guess I'm proud to be a survivor but would prefer not to have had to have been a survivor. Surviving sucks and my life was changed irreparably at the hands of the state. All I can hope for now is that other children are spared from this.

  8. Grant Mahy


    I'm a historic abuse survivor. I was abused in state care in NZ (now I live in Australia and have always been an Australian citizen - I have lived here since 1989) and was recently awarded damages largely due to the fact that I had police records to support my case. These records outline clearly how I was sexually abused in state care and how the instituion buried the affair. You can read about it here Firstly, I have sought help in Australia. The help we get is garbage…

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