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Royal Commission: abuse victims need to be helped, not just heard

There has been a great deal of focus on the role of a Royal Commission in delivering “justice” for victims of sexual abuse. Justice is a powerful, symbolic principle, and being listened to can be a moving…

Will help for victims of clergy abuse extend beyond the Royal Commission? AAP/Paul Miller

There has been a great deal of focus on the role of a Royal Commission in delivering “justice” for victims of sexual abuse. Justice is a powerful, symbolic principle, and being listened to can be a moving and meaningful experience for survivors. My experience interviewing child abuse survivors suggests the opportunity to tell their story in a validating and comfortable environment can have a range of emotional benefits for them.

However, once the drama of the Royal Commission is over, survivors must return to their day-to-day lives. Some recover well, but many continue to experience high rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide. They suffer in silence or are bounced between health and welfare services that are not funded to meet their needs. The worst affected wind up in prison or on the streets.

NSW premier Barry O’Farrell said that sexual abuse has “robbed young children of their futures”. The implication is that the lives of child abuse survivors have been irrevocably compromised and the only substantive action we can take is to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place; once it has happened, it’s too late to do much. This represents the state’s failure to provide adequate health services to child abuse survivors.

Ensuring the quality of life of survivors into the future should be a key focus of the recommendations of the Royal Commission. Safety and justice are fundamental human rights, but so are health and wellbeing. The World Health Organisation defines health as an individual and collective “resource for everyday life”. We build and preserve this resource as a community, first by creating healthy environments in which people can live happily and safely, and second by ensuring that care and support are available.

In both regards, Australia has failed child abuse survivors. They grew up in spaces where they were not safe or protected. Many were not provided with the opportunity to disclose what had happened to them, or when they did, they were ignored. Now, as adults, they find themselves unable to access health care that addresses the impact of trauma and abuse on their lives.

As a result, they are often subject to inappropriate, ineffective or even dangerous forms of treatment that compound the harms of abuse. But effective treatment does exist for child abuse survivors. The fact is that successive governments have not invested in them, made them available or provided enough abuse-specific training to the health workforce.

Royal Commissions have the power and scope to address systemic policy issues. The prevention, detection and reporting of child abuse is one such issue. Providing and ensuring access to effective mental health care in the aftermath of abuse is the other side of the coin – and it has long been neglected. Child abuse is at the very centre of the burden of mental illness in the community. Until steps are taken to address the health needs of survivors, this burden will remain, at a significant financial cost to the community, not to mention the personal cost to survivors, their friends and families.

When it comes to child abuse, justice, safety and health are inextricably linked. Children protected from abuse are less vulnerable to mental illness. Where they are abused, early detection and intervention can result in better outcomes for the child, and the identification of offenders and protection of other children.

For those victims enduring the long-term impacts of abuse, however, real justice must deliver more than the symbolic opportunity to attest to their victimisation. It must provide them with access to the care and support that has previously been denied them.

This is one of the main challenges that faces the Royal Commission and, in my view, if this challenge is not addressed then the current rhetoric about justice and safety will remain just that - rhetoric.

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  1. Anne Powles

    Retired Psychologist

    All very true and I do hope past victims are cared for properly both during and after the inquiry. That is the least they deserve.

    But the first priority, and I am sure victims will agree, is that it must not be allowed to continue into the future or, in the best case scenario, ever again.
    There must be safeguards against abuse in institutional settings,particularly ones expected to care for children..

  2. Joseph Bernard


    I agree, while justice is important in helping to get closure, it is not the answer to making a person whole.

    if we look at the world, we can see people that have everything and born with a silver spoon but have still become basket cases and then we see people that have come from a challenged background and then shine like Oprah.

    It ultimately comes down to mind set of the individual and how they overcome hardship.. Like most people on this planet we all have challenges and it is our own personal challenge to over come this.

    the good news is that emotional re patterning techniques all can be solve as long as we want to. If we really care about these victims we have to look to healing and the future, rather than just punishment in the good ole biblical tradition

    1. john mills
      john mills is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Joseph Bernard

      Exactly right about it coming down to the mind set of the individual Joseph, I was one of those people, and although i wasn't tampered with, like some of the other boys in the orphanage, things were tried on me some times, but if your body went taught, he would go away, but it was happening in the dormitory around me, that i had to hear and witness, and i was bashed often. What it comes down to is that bad things happen in all our lives, its getting caught up in it, living it, breathing it, that…

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  3. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    A very good article. Certainly a welcome change from so many obviously bigoted authors which reminded me of the attitudes to Catholics that I thought had dissipated.
    As a society, we always seem to spend a lot of time and energy rectifying an earlier generations "mistakes". We have spent much money recently on suspected World War II war criminals, yet we ignore the war criminals that have migrated to Australia after much more recent conflicts.
    Besides sexual abuse, many children have to deal with parents who have mental health and drug issues. Often it is relatives and other carers who take over their responsibility.This assistance is often invisible and ignored, but unfortunately it is all too common.
    While it is always good to see justice done, it also generally involves large benefits to the legal profession. The victims are the ones most in need of assistance.
    It is also important to consider the question: "What will future generations condemn this one for?"

    1. Aaron Troy Small


      In reply to Philip Dowling

      The disingenuity of your post is mindblowing, I'm sorry but these are not 'mistakes' and it isn't bigotry against the Catholic Church, it is a Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse of children by members of the clergy. Suggesting that these are 'mistakes', or that the perpetrators were 'misguided', 'led astray' or merely 'sinners' is an attempt to obfuscate the fact that these weren't sins but criminal, sexual assaults against children, committed by individuals exploiting their position of trust…

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  4. Aaron Troy Small


    One major concern I have is the potential for this Commission to be hijacked in the same way as the Commission into Child Abuse in Ireland ( Various files and records were unable to be located unless and until complete immunity from prosecution was granted to members of the clergy found to have engaged in abuse, sexual abuse and neglect of children. One major instance is that of the Congregation of Christian Brothers (

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  5. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Expect to hear vast quantities rhetoric as each player attempts to rise to the top of the "appearing concerned and compassionate" heap.

    "NSW premier Barry O’Farrell said that sexual abuse has “robbed young children of their futures”.

    Barry O'Farrell is just the start.

    To Barry et al, it is all about DOING something.

    1. Lynne Newington
      Lynne Newington is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      The Conversation's Judy Courtin is beginning to experience the audacity of being pro-active, fortunately she is a lawyer in her own right so she won't be intimidate as in today's Age and experienced reporter Barney Zwartz writing up the story.
      Imagine the difficulty as an ordinary citizen to stand against the status quo.
      As far as each player attempting to rise to the top of the "appearing concerned and compassionate heap", hopefully the eyes of victims don't become blurred by same, only to later, when the tears have dried they've been "done over" again.

  6. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Thank you, Michael, for a timely reminder about who the real victims are and the difficulty of defining what constitutes restorative justice for them. It will be good to sight the terms of reference for the Royal Commission. I suspect the lawyers and SCs on all sides are already having a field day trying to influence these, with various school systems and child-care agencies focussed on minimising compensatory pay-outs, which, beyond therapy, is really the only way of ensuring that the agencies in…

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