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Royal commission has the power to bring justice to victims of sexual abuse

The terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, as announced by the prime minister on Friday, certainly seem to tick all the right boxes if survivors and…

Prime minister Julia Gillard met with victims and their families at Kirribilli House on Saturday. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

The terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, as announced by the prime minister on Friday, certainly seem to tick all the right boxes if survivors and victims are to receive justice. The very broad ranging terms of reference and powers of the commission, which is to be headed by the Justice Peter McLellan, are capable of capturing and addressing the reasons the commission was called.

While interviewing victims of abuse and their families for my research, I asked them what they would require to attain justice. One emphatic and universal response was that the truth be told. This “truth”, forcibly pushed into retreat and suppressed for so long, now has the opportunity to be welcomed and validated. This first element of acquiring justice is imperative.

Another requisite element for justice is accountability. This is not only for the original sex crimes but also the subsequent crimes of concealment by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and other organisations which enabled perpetrators to roam free and sexually assault or rape thousands of children.

Prosecutions of sex offenders and those guilty of concealment or cover-up, are made possible by the commission’s power to establish investigation units, which can gather evidence and prepare briefs for, and liaise with, the police. Although the commission itself cannot prosecute, the early establishment of these units means this important work in bringing about accountability can commence quite soon. This is unlike the Irish Ryan Commission where prosecutions were excluded from its remit.

The other issue underpinning the calls for a royal commission is the disturbingly high number of suicides and premature deaths of people who had been sexually assaulted by Catholic clergy and those in other organisations. In making its recommendations, the commission must have regard to “the experiences of people directly and indirectly affected by child sexual abuse and related matters” in institutions. This term of reference can unquestionably incorporate suicides and premature deaths, giving families and loved ones the opportunity to testify.

This is imperative for several reasons. These families deserve justice and an explanation. Also, the original investigations of these suicides by the coroner would have been fettered, and the findings skewed, in that the common thread of childhood sexual assault may not have been revealed, or even known by the family.

The commission also needs to determine the incidence of clergy abuse-related suicides and premature deaths in Australia. With 40-50 such suicides stemming from a five-year cohort of children in one Catholic primary school in regional Victoria, this issue calls for urgent attention.

The next vital issue to be addressed if victims and survivors are to receive justice, is that they have equal access to the laws relating to litigating or suing, especially organisations such as the Catholic Church. This would involve amending the Property Trust Acts of the church and the Statute of Limitations legislation. This will not guarantee victims’ success, but at least they will have the option of going down that path. The commission itself does not have the power to make these legislative changes, but it is directed to have regard to these matters when writing its recommendations.

Another fundamental element for victims and survivors attaining justice is that these crimes don’t happen again. Future protection of other children is of paramount importance. The commission has no discretion in that it must have regard to any changes in laws, policies, practices and systems that will protect children in the future.

Finally, the elephant in the room is the issue of compensation. This prickly topic must be faced head on. Monetary compensation is non-negotiable for the victims and survivors of these hideous institutional crimes. Around 1000 to 2000 victims who have been through the Catholic Church’s internal complaints processes have received some compensation, many calling it silence money. The amounts received are paltry, insulting and far below what could be expected in a court of law. Most of these people have signed confidentiality agreements that also prohibit them from suing again.

The commission will have the necessary and far-reaching powers, if it thinks fit, to override these church confidentiality agreements. This is very important, as my research has found that Melbourne Response and Towards Healing have overwhelmingly exploited these already vulnerable victims with many of them accepting below par compensation amounts.

The final success of this royal commission will necessarily depend not only on its recommendations, but the subsequent adoption of these recommendations by future governments.

Victims and families, despite decades of being cast aside by governments, the church and sometimes the police, have stoically maintained their courage, integrity and their truth. To date, they have won a great battle. Last week’s announcement by the prime minister was a testament to this ongoing victory.

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  1. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Good article.

    Not sure what justice means in these circumstances - very different to any sense of legal recourse I think. Speaking of which:

    Mein Gott!!! What was going on in the ACT in 1937 to explain the remarkable Property Trust Act to which you have enlightened us.

    Its real name: Roman Catholic Church Property Trust Act 1937

    Here's a representative chunk:

    "... (4) The trust shall be liable to indemnify the person from whom the property was divested, his or her executors…

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  2. Geoff Henderson


    There are frequent references to the Catholic Church, understandably perhaps, but surely the aim is to find ALL institutional culprits, not just Catholics.

    How far is the net cast? By that I mean there are individuals who act, others that protect/conceal/ignore those crimes as they are committed and/or over time. Will the Commissioners be chasing down those who supported the offenders (sorry, "offenders" is hardly the best word). Could that include Church heads who played some part in the continuance…

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  3. Colin Kline

    logged in via Facebook

    I thank Judy COURTIN for such a comprehensive article, identifying these key factors for this Royal Commission into RCC multiple sex/violence abuses :

    1. Historical Justice, i.e., that "the truth will out";

    2. Accountability, i.e., prosecutions for BOTH the crimes, and the coverups;

    3. Closure, i.e. historical justice for suicides arising from PTSD;

    4. Legal Justice, i.e., the RCC can no longer hide behind ancient laws;

    5. Instituting NEW laws aimed at reducing embedded church recidivism…

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  4. Judy Block-Jones

    logged in via Facebook

    Great article...

    Hopefully the full truth can be exposed by the Royal Commission investigation, about the cover ups of child sex crimes. This is such an excellent way to validate those kids who have been sexually abused by trusted figures, and hopefully that our children today will be protected.

    Victims of child sex abuse have waited long enough to be believed. Those who have committed these crimes of sex abuse and those who have covered up these crimes need to be held accountable.


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  5. Peter Andrew Smith


    Excellent article. I have one question: What provision, if any, is there to stop clergy being sent overseas in order to avoid appearing before the commission or facing subsequent court hearings? I ask because it is well established that the Roman Catholic Church has an established track record of transferring senior clergy to posts in the Vatican where they are safe from extradition to other jurisdictions.

    1. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Peter Andrew Smith

      Political pressure I'd reckon Peter, not to mention legal scrutiny.

      If the church or anyone else was seen to be engaged in frustrating the work of the commission or the police, there'd be hell to pay, if you'll pardon the expression.

      Conspiracy to smuggle someone out of arm's reach is no less a crime if one is wearing a curious collar. Arguably that will be a critical part of the commission's deliberations - determining the culpability of those who turned a blind eye, or conspired to protect the abuser. Goes to the heart of the matter.

      This quietly shifting these characters about only works if no one is watching. Like the whole business.

  6. Grant Mahy


    As a survivor of institutionalised sexual abuse the first thing I would say is thanks to Julia Gillard - hopefully the commission will help some to heal and protect future generations from what we have had to live through. The thing that does worry me though is there seems to be no investigation of the government services that exist for adult survivors of child sexual abuse. It's really a question of okay so we know what happened and we can attempt to understand why but what then? How do we help…

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  7. Anneliese Ford

    Senior Consultant

    Excellent article Judy. As someone with damaged family and friends who were abused in Catholic orphanages, convents and schools since as the 1950s, I am appalled that they have suffered for so long without justice. But better late than never. The Catholic church's continued protection of its guilty clergy and refusal to admit the truth clearly demonstrate its ongoing moral, ethical and legal failings.

  8. Dale Bloom


    The day after the commission was announced, the Prime Minister held a “private” tea part with alleged victims of child sex abuse, and also invited the press.

    She had her photo taken many times, and those photos appeared in many newspapers.

    It is a complete insult that she would use people in this way to gain publicity and have her photo taken, and a complete insult that politicians will play the press and play the public so often in election years.

    It is a further insult when taxpayer funded politicians then spend their money on expensive jewellery, such as a necklace with huge pearls.

    The Prime Minister must consider the Australia public total dummies who can be manipulated at will.

  9. Russell Camel Wattie

    logged in via Facebook

    Will this Royal Commission look into the current untouchable religion whose prophet married a 6 y.o. and consummated at age 9? There are many followers that believe this is OK to practice today. Is the act of Female Circumcision to be looked at? If a girl is taken overseas from Australia to have this barbaric act performed will it be a part of the Royal Commission?
    Somehow I think not.

  10. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Given that the author has singled out the Catholic Church for particular opprobrium I bring to your attention the following recent communication from Francis Sullivan, the former CEO of Catholic Health Australia, who has now been appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Catholic Church's Truth, Justice & Healing Council:

    "The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) and Catholic Religious Australia (CRA) have unanimously decided to set up the Truth, Justice and Healing Council to co-ordinate…

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      No matter what is said, what evidence is admitted, by definition the very opposite must be true, right?

      This is exactly what I and many others are talking about in warning of the dangers inherent in this highly selective, politically motivated approach to justice in this country.

  11. Comment removed by moderator.

  12. Geoff Henderson


    This is slightly off topic:

    There is a bit of crap being slung around by a couple of contributors. You know who you are.

    Doubtless there are elements of great merit within your respective argument(s).
    But whatever worth in your exchange is quickly being lost by myself and possibly others.

    Give us a break. Get up, shake hands and have a worthy conversation, or go away, meet at dawn in a forest and hurl insults at each other...