Report makes a compelling case to extend sex abuse royal commission

The child sex abuse royal commission under Justice Peter McClellan has asked for more time and money to complete its investigation. AAP/Jeremy Piper

On Monday, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released its interim report, detailing for the first time the full scope and comprehensiveness of its inquiry into institutional child sexual abuse in Australia.

In the report, the commissioners list the valuable outcomes of their inquiries to date. This includes holding more than 1600 private sessions and receiving more than 1600 written accounts from survivors of sexual abuse. By the end of May, more than 160 allegations had been referred to police.

By the end of June, 13 public hearings had been held around Australia to examine particular case studies of institutional abuse. Over 1000 people are still waiting to attend a private session, and the commissioners have identified 70 cases of institutional abuse that deserve a public hearing.

The report details the impacts of the royal commission to date, including substantive cultural and policy shifts within institutions with responsibility for children. The commission has also gathered vital and previously unavailable data on the dynamics of institutional abuse as well as commissioning original research in the area. This work will inform child protection policy well into the future.

The royal commission is funded until the end of 2015. The report makes a compelling case for a two-year extension at a cost of an additional A$104 million.

The commissioners note that without an extension and more funds, they will be unable to fulfil their terms of reference. A large number of survivors will be denied the chance to testify. Important incidents of institutional abuse will not be scrutinised via a public hearing.

While the results of the royal commission to date are impressive, it is the process by which these are being achieved that is particularly striking.

Public inquiries and survivor testimony

Since 1980s, state, territory and Commonwealth governments have invited public representations in dozens of inquiries into the identification, intervention, management and prevention of child abuse.

To name just a few, public inquiries have been held in NSW (1997), Queensland (1999), Western Australia (2002), Northern Territory (2007) and South Australia (2008). At a federal level, there have been inquiries into the Stolen Generation (1997), the treatment of child migrants (2001) and children in institutional or out-of-home care (2005).

The testimony of child abuse survivors has been central to most of these inquiries. It is widely acknowledged that the experience of testifying in a public inquiry can be cathartic but can also come at a high emotional and psychological cost to the adult abuse survivor.

It is therefore concerning to find repetition of child abuse inquiries at a state and federal level. This gives rise to repeated solicitations for the same traumatised population to reprise their testimony. This carries risks for these individuals but also raises questions about the value being afforded to their testimony.

When each inquiry is branded as a definitive resolution of historical injustices, only to be apparently superseded by an even more definitive inquiry, then the worth of public inquiry is brought into question, and the confidence of survivors in the process is destabilised.

The royal commission’s approach

When the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was first announced, there were questions about the need for yet another public inquiry into child abuse, particularly since most prior inquiries had also been focused on children in institutions and out-of-home care.

In the report, the commissioners articulate a clear response to these concerns. Firstly, they note that previous inquiries into child abuse focused on specific situations and case studies rather than broader questions of institutional responsiveness and responsibility. The implementation and evaluation of the recommendations of these inquiries have been ad hoc at best.

As the public hearings of this royal commission have made clear, clearly more work remains to be done to ensure that institutions are safe for children.

Secondly, the commissioners have sought to maximise the benefit of testifying while minimising the risk. They have consulted widely with community groups and mental health experts to develop a process that is supportive and validating. Survivors of abuse have been given the option of verbal or written testimony.

The conduct of the royal commission has generally reaffirmed the seriousness of the abuses described by survivors, and the importance of responding to the needs of affected adults as well children.

It may be that one of the inquiry’s most important outcomes can’t be captured in a graph or pithy statistic. By placing survivor testimony at the centre of solutions to institutional abuse, the royal commission is signalling a major shift in the value that is attributed to the perspectives and experiences of adults abused as children.

By documenting this testimony in a supportive and compassionate manner, the royal commission is also demonstrating that an ethos of justice and an ethos of care are intimately linked to one another.


Editor’s note: Michael will be on hand for an Author Q&A session from 2pm to 3pm AEST tomorrow (July 2). Post any questions about the royal commission into child sex abuse below.

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