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Royal Commission into Child Abuse terms of reference: experts respond

Prime Minister Julia Gillard (left) speaks to media as Families Minister Jenny Macklin watches on during a press conference in Sydney, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. Ms Gillard announced the details for a royal commision into victims of child abuse. AAP Image/Stephanie Flack

The Federal Government today released the terms of reference for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses Child Sexual Abuse in Australia.

The Royal Commission, announced in November last year, will feature a special unit to investigate allegations of abuse and will be overseen by six commissioners, led by Justice Peter McClellan.

The six commissioners are: Justice Peter McClellan, Robert Atkinson, Justice Jennifer Coate, Robert Fitzgerald, Professor Helen Milroy and Andrew Murray.

The royal commission will focus on cases of institutional sexual abuse and not on cases of sexual abuse within the family. Child abuse that was not sexual, such as neglect or physical mistreatment, will not be examined as part of this royal commission, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard said today.

The Royal Commission will deliver its interim report by June 30 next year and is expected to hand over its final report by December 31, 2015 but Ms Gillard said that date can be extended if needed.

The commission will not have powers to prosecute.

The CEO of the Catholic Church’s newly-formed Truth, Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, welcomed the release of the terms of reference.

Here are some expert responses to today’s announcement:

Michael Salter, Lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney

I thought it was a surprisingly emotional press conference from the Prime Minister. It’s clear they have undertaken an extensive consultation process with survivors groups and they have learned a lot about some of the delicacies and complexities about trying to gather testimonies of institutional sexual abuse.

I think they are walking quite a fine line between trying to hear these stories whilst also making sure the commission doesn’t become so broad it loses focus.

On the whole, I think they have done a good job.

The six commissioners have a wide range of expertise and I was particularly pleased to see commissioners appointed with expertise in the mental health impacts of child sexual abuse and expertise in family law.

Former Senator Andrew Murray is a well recognised advocate for survivors of institutional abuse.

Judy Courtin, PhD Student, Faculty of Law at Monash University

I think the six commissioners represent a very comprehensive broad set of skills and experience.

We have the judicial skills of a Justice McClennan and Justice Jennifer Coate, we have a psychiatrist who specialises in child sexual assault and problems in Helen Milroy and also former Senator Andrew Murray who is an advocate for survivors and we also have a former police commissioner.

One of the very important parts of the inquiry is the setting up of the investigation unit which will write briefs and liaise with the police or the OPP.

Unlike what’s happened in Ireland, in which prosecutions did not come out of the inquiry at all, hopefully it could mean prosecutions as we go along so people don’t have to wait some years.

I think the terms of reference address most adequately all of the original reasons for a royal commission. They haven’t mentioned suicide and premature death but I think the terms are broad enough to include the suicide of people who have experiences of child sexual assault.

Many victims say they want the truth to be out there, so this acknowledges them and their truth.

Hopefully these investigations will bring about accountability for the original offenders but also hopefully anyone who has helped conceal those crimes, right up through the hierarchy of the Church and other organisations.

It will also look at impediments to survivors having access to justice – things like the statue of limitations and the Ellis defence, which doesn’t allow victims to sue the Church.

They are also focusing on future policy and prevention and the issue of redress. It looks to me, at this stage, that all the boxes have been ticked.

This would be very heartening for all the surviving victims but also the families of those who didn’t make it.

Mike Pottenger, Lecturer, Statistics and Political Economy at the University of Melbourne.

It’s good to see that the police have been included in the list of organisations that Commissioners can look at, and that this can be done if they consider that the police have not responded appropriately.

Scott Prasser, Executive Director, Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University

The terms of reference are clearly showing that the government wants to tackle the underlying causes of the child abuse issue rather than be an institutional witch hunt.

It is very much about looking to the future and taking a systemic rather than case-by-case approach (a flaw of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission).

It talks about new polices and laws needed to prevent the problem in the future, what should be done to improve reporting processes and overcoming problems and impediments to taking action – this is about state jurisdictions, reporting arrangements, agency rivalries and turf wars.

Reference (d), about addressing past cases, seems to be pointing to a more general review than a case-by-case basis and may lead to the issue of compensation by whom and for what being raised.

There is also the need to allow those affected by abuse to be heard but nevertheless the terms of reference stress the need to focus on the ‘systemic’ nature of the issue.

With six royal commissioners, this is one of the biggest royal commissions in Australia’s history.

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