Why Australia's royal commission on child sexual abuse had to happen – explainer
By Melissa Davey
December 11, 2017
|In 2012 the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, set up the royal commission, saying: ‘There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil.|
Photo by Dave Hunt
The inquiry which investigated decades of sexual abuse in institutions delivers its final report on 15 December
What is the royal commission into institutional responses into child sexual abuse?
The royal commission delivers its final report to the Australian governor general, Sir Peter Cosgrove, on 15 December, after five years’ work.
In 2012 the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, announced a royal commission into institutional responses into child sexual abuse, something survivors and their advocates had been seeking for years after allegations in Australia and in other countries, notably the US and Ireland. “There has been a systemic failure to respond to it,” Gillard said. “The allegations that have come to light recently about child sexual abuse have been heartbreaking. These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject. There have been too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil.”
While successive prime ministers said a royal commission was not needed because state inquiries and investigations had been held, Gillard ordered the commission after explosive allegations made by Peter Fox, a detective chief inspector within New South Wales police. In a letter to the Newcastle Herald, he wrote that victims of historical abuse were coming forward in increasing numbers.
“Often the church knows but does nothing other than protect the pedophile and its own reputation,” Fox wrote. “I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church.”
Four days later, on 12 November, Gillard held a press conference announcing a royal commission that would examine all religious organisations, state care providers, not-for-profit bodies and other child service agencies, including how those organisations responded to abuse allegations. Justice Peter McClellan was appointed to the head the royal commission, leading a team of six commissioners. He had an extensive legal career before his appointment, including chairing the Sydney Water inquiry and working on the royal commission into British nuclear tests in Australia.
The commission’s work officially began in 2013.
Why was it needed?
Although there have been various state government inquiries into child sexual abuse, there were concerns that the scope of those inquiries was too narrow, and that state inquiries did not have the resources necessary to comprehensibly investigate abuse. A royal commission is seen as a kind of last resort inquiry, when the scale and complexity of an issue needs comprehensive resourcing and investigation.
Royal commissioners have wide-ranging powers under the Royal Commissions Act 1902. They include the power to authorise police to apply for search warrants, to summons and cross-examine witnesses living in Australia, and to issue arrests warrants if summonsed witnesses fail to appear. Royal commissions independently investigate, provide advice and seek experts to inform their work without influence from government.
The commissioners’ job was asked to look at any private, public or non-government organisation that is, or was in the past, involved with children, including government agencies, schools, sporting clubs, orphanages, foster care, and religious organisations.
How did it work?
The commission uncovered the scale of abuse and failures to address it in three key ways: through the private sessions that let survivors speak directly to one of the six commissioners about their experiences; public hearings, where the commission heard from witnesses and gathered evidence from them after investigation, research and preparation; and a comprehensive policy and research program that included roundtables throughout Australia and papers that examined prevention, identification, response and justice for victims.
On Friday it will hand down its final report after 8,000 private sessions and 444 days of public hearings. The commission heard from more than 1,200 witnesses during the public hearings, examined more than 1.2 million documents and generated more than 45,400 pages of transcripts. Although the its final report is due on Friday 15 December it has been incrementally releasing findings from more than 100 pieces of research it commissioned, as well as findings from investigations into various institutions. It has also made recommendations about how a national redress scheme for abuse survivors should work.
How much has it cost?
The overall budget for the commission was $372m. The commission expects to run under budget by the time it concludes. Staffing levels peaked at 325 in October 2016.
What has it uncovered so far?
In a speech given in November in Melbourne, McClellan said we now know that tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions.
More than 4,000 individual Australian institutions have been reported to the commission as places where abuse has occurred. In many cases, institutions harboured several abusers.
Some of the most common themes to have emerged from reports so far is the catastrophic failure of leadership within institutions to take the concerns of children, parents and staff seriously; to follow up and investigate complaints; to take disciplinary action against alleged and known perpetrators; or to report alleged or known perpetrators to police. The commission also found some leaders felt their primary responsibility was to protect the institution’s reputation, and the accused person. The impact of this was devastating, allowing perpetrators to continue to abuse, in some cases, dozens of victims over decades.
More than 15,000 survivors of institutional abuse or their relatives have contacted the royal commission.
Where was abuse most prevalent?
A significant proportion of the people who contacted the royal commission made allegations of child sexual abuse occurring in Catholic church institutions. As of June, of all people who attended a private session with a commissioner, 37% reported abuse occurring in institutions managed by the Catholic church.
What happens next?
On Friday the commission will deliver its final, 21-volume report to the governor general who is then likely to table the report to parliament, after which it will be published by the parliament.
While it has released many incremental reports, the final report will make further recommendations about how abuse can be prevented and addressed in future.
The report will cover the nature, cause and impact of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts; what we learned from private sessions; how to support institutions to be child-safe; findings about institutions, such as contemporary out-of-home care, contemporary detention, sport, religious institutions; children’s residential institutions 1950-1990; interventions and treatment for children with harmful sexual behaviours; the need for advocacy, support and therapeutic treatment services; redress and civil litigation; the criminal justice system; and disclosing child sexual abuse.