Explainer: royal commission into child sex abuse

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, Families Minister Jenny Macklin and Prime Minister Julia Gillard have announced the royal commission’s terms of reference. AAP/Stephanie Flack

The terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse were released this afternoon in Sydney.

In speeches that emphasised the need to acknowledge the experiences of survivors of child sex assault in Australian institutions (both religious and other), Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Attorney General Nicola Roxon, and Minister for Families Jenny Macklin outlined the significance, structure and legislative framework of the commission.

Explaining the terms of reference

The terms of reference highlight several defining characteristics – most notably a multifaceted approach to child sex assault, a broad range of powers, and the commission’s independence in decision-making.

While the terms do not outline any operational characteristics of the royal commission, much is demonstrated by the range in experience of its six appointed commissioners. By appointing Justice Peter McClellan, NSW Supreme Court judge and former Assistant Commissioner to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, as Chief Commissioner, the government emphasised its focus on improving the factors that have allowed for systemic institutional malpractice.

McClellan is supported by five other Commissioners – former QLD Police Chief, Mr Robert Atkinson; Justice Jennifer Ann Coate of the Family Court of Australia; leading child psychiatrist Dr Helen Milroy; former WA Senator Andrew Murray; and Commissioner of the NSW Productivity Commission, Robert Fitzgerald. Collectively, these commissioners will be able to draw upon experience spanning law enforcement, legislation, mental health, children’s rights and disadvantage.

The commission, it was announced, is not going to be prosecutorial; it will seek to “shine a light” on past abuses and acknowledge the suffering endured by survivors and victims alike. Whether or not this includes public hearings is yet to be decided; the operational peculiarities of the commission are to be decided by the commissioners, who meet collectively for the first time next Monday. And by allowing the commission such discretionary powers over factors such as methods of gathering evidence and operational design, the government is distancing itself from the process.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. As outlined in the Terms of Reference, the word “institution” refers to both public and private bodies that have allowed for adults to come in contact with children. Should it emerge through the commission’s investigations that abuse in public, or state-run, institutions was prevalent, distance between the government and the commission will be crucial to ensure its legitimacy.

This independence has, however, left many waiting for greater detail about the role of police. It was recommended in the terms of reference that an independent investigative unit be established. Comprised of police officers seconded from all Australian states and territories, it was suggested that this unit be proactive rather than reactive – seeking out hidden sex abuse, as opposed to waiting for allegations to be made.

With numerous victims and a long history to be investigated, such an investigative unit would only serve to help the desired efficiency of the commission. As stated by Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, however, it is important that such an investigations unit remains independent of existing state and territory organisations, and reports directly to the commissioners. This will allow for a coordinated approach, and further ensure legitimacy and accountability.

What does this mean for victims and survivors?

The role of victims of child sexual assault in the investigations remains unclear for now. Any decisions concerning public hearings or the role of individual testimonies are subject to the operational choices of the commissioners.

What is clear, however, is that the commission provides an avenue through which experiences which were for so long hidden, ignored, or denied, will be acknowledged, and support provided. Dr Lyn Shumack, a psychologist with 25 years experience in treating victims and survivors of child sex assault, was cited in The Australian today as stating that people who had experienced abuse as children needed to have their trauma acknowledged and validated to start healing.

The time frame of three years also suggests the immediacy of this need for change.

Where to from here?

Several important factors need to be considered to ensure the commission’s effectiveness.

First, its outreach. Victims of sex assault in Australian institutions are numerous, and it is likely that not all continue to reside in Australia. The link between assault, disenfranchisement, and criminality is well documented, and efforts need to be made to ensure people in prison or secure facilities have equal access to the commission and its support networks.

Macklin also noted in today’s conference that illiteracy has often resulted from the poor standards of education promoted in institutions. People suffering illiteracy or other forms of disadvantage (physical or otherwise) must have access to the commission.

The high rate of suicide amongst victims of child sex assault needs to also be recognised, and the experiences of their families should not be forgotten. They too deserve support.

A nation-wide, coordinated approach to investigations and research is integral to the success of this Royal Commission. With the number of victims so high, however, the key will be to balance efficiency and effectiveness. This can be achieved through the use of an independent investigative body, as well as strongly regulated state co-operation, and thorough supporting legislation.

Now the terms of reference have been outlined, what the commissioners choose to do with them is crucial.