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Australian Royal Commission and the Savile investigation: getting the truth out

With the year’s end tantalisingly close, Australia awaits the announcement of the Federal government’s terms of reference for the national Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual…

Nick Pollard delivers his review on BBC Newsnight’s decision to exclude a report on alleged abuse by the late broadcaster, Jimmy Savile. EPA/Chris Radburn

With the year’s end tantalisingly close, Australia awaits the announcement of the Federal government’s terms of reference for the national Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

The nature and breadth of these sex crimes and their alleged concealment is expected to be profound. As Australia prepares for its national inquiry, England is reeling from sexual abuse allegations “on an unprecedented scale”. A joint report, due early 2013, by the Metropolitan Police and the children’s charity, NSPCC, will reveal the findings of their ten-week investigation into the former BBC celebrity, Jimmy Savile. Savile faced multiple allegations of child sex offences before his death, but no prosecutions.

Operation Yewtree detectives have arrested other high-profile names, such as Gary Glitter, on suspicion of sexual offences. EPA/Tal Cohen

The head of this investigation, Commander Peter Spindler, revealed an astonishing 450 people have made sexual abuse allegations against Savile. Although this “scoping exercise”, named Operation Yewtree, into the alleged assaults by Savile has been completed, police continue investigations into the allegations of another 139 victims of alleged sexual assaults committed by other high profile celebrities in the UK.

What do the Australian Royal Commission into religious institutions and the English investigations into high profile celebrities have in common?

First, the majority of the crimes being dealt with are historic in that, broadly, they were committed between the 1960s and the 1990s.

Second, the victims were children and young people, some of whom were disabled.

Third, the alleged perpetrators were in positions of power, influence and trust.

Finally, most of the paedophiles and protectors sat safely under the criminal radar without ever facing prosecution – until now.

But this is where the similarities between the two inquiries end. The very different powers and terms of reference of the two inquiries mean that Operation Yewtree is carrying out criminal investigations only. This should not diminish its impact or importance. Many hundreds of victims have remained in the shadows of Savile and others' celebratory spotlight for far too long.

The much broader scope of the terms of reference for the Royal Commission means there will be identification of preventative measures for public and private organisations and institutions; the adoption of a policy for dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse; identification of what can be done by these organisations and governments to assist current victims, and, lastly, the opportunity for all those affected by child sexual abuse to share their experiences with the commission, if they wish.

Despite the Royal Commission’s more coercive powers and comprehensive terms of reference, both inquiries are pivotal in seeking to illuminate the truth – the truth that is imperative if justice is to be attained.

The central issues that should be examined and investigated by the Royal Commission include determining how the child sex offenders and their protectors managed to avoid detection and prosecution over a period of many decades. This inaction leaves the offenders in the community free to continue their offending. Also demanding investigation is why the police force often failed to act on the reports of the victims and why other powerful adults in positions of authority did not believe, or act on, the complaints of children.

A crucial question, not only for Australia and the UK, but for the rest of the world, is why it has taken governments so long to act? What is it about the alliance of government and church, or government and influential celebrities that has neglected the voices of sexual assault victims?

The mix of power, influence and the vulnerability of children can be toxic and devastating. Add to that the delay in the reporting of child sex crimes, and the paedophile has a formidable formula. This formula is multiplied when the organisation within which the paedophile works conceals the offender’s crimes.

The destructive nature of this means the victim, who may take decades, if ever, to disclose the crimes, must alone carry this lifetime burden.

For a victim to be taken seriously is a requisite element in the delivery of justice. Having the truth out there is central to the victims’ recovery. They also want accountability in terms of prosecutions and convictions and reliable strategies in place to prevent these crimes happening again.

Both the Australian Royal Commission and the UK investigation have the power and the opportunity to make this happen.