It was us against everyone’: how abuse survivors will keep pushing for change
By Melissa Davey
December 13, 2017
|Manny Waks and his father, Zephaniah. Waks describes the work of the child abuse royal commission as ‘life-saving’. |
Photo by Mal Fairclough
|On Thursday the six royal commissioners led by Justice Peter McClellan, centre, will sit for a final time in front of abuse survivors and advocates. |
Photo by Jeremy Piper
Manny Waks, a survivor of sexual abuse who exposed crimes against children that occurred within the secretive Jewish Yeshivah community, describes the work of the child abuse royal commission as “life-saving” and “life-changing”.
On Thursday morning the six royal commissioners led by Justice Peter McClellan will sit for a final time in front of abuse survivors and advocates, many of whom followed the commission’s work around the country. Guardian Australia spoke to Waks and other advocates and experts about the commission’s work over the past five years and what they hope will change once its work is done.
Waks was the first abuse survivor within the Yeshivah community in Australia to publicly call out his abusers and those who concealed their crimes. His whistleblowing saw him shunned by many in his community. His former peers ostracised him, verbally abused him and attempted to discredit his abuse. Speaking to Guardian Australia from where he now lives in Israel, Waks says it was the royal commission’s interrogation of Yeshivah authorities that helped to validate his story, along with the stories of of dozens of others abused within Jewish institutions.
“I struggle to think that I would be alive now [without the commission],” he says. “To see the leading rabbis of Australia being hauled before the commission, many who had never faced a court or been cross-examined before … they had nowhere to hide. They couldn’t cover things up. It was all there for everyone to see.
“It was us against everyone and then the royal commission came along. Suddenly people said, ‘Hang on, what you have been saying has been true all along’. And even more people came forward. And it was such a vindication and validation that we didn’t do anything wrong.”
The final public hearing in Sydney is being held as a mark of respect to the commission’s hundreds of staff and to people like Waks who shared their stories during the 444 days of public hearings, or in one of 8,000 private sessions. McClellan, who has chaired the commission since its inception and cross-examined hundreds of witnesses, will give a short speech before dozens of abuse survivors and advocates in attendance, before presenting the National Library of Australia with a book containing around 1,000 messages handwritten by survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.
Experts, advocates, victims and survivors have praised McClellan and his team for the meticulous and compassionate way in which they have conducted their inquiry. When the commissioners identified gaps in knowledge, they tasked universities and leading researchers to undertake research into abuse and its causes. More than 50 pieces of original research have already been published by the royal commission. Commissioners ordered hundreds of institutions to hand over documents. More than 1.2m documents have been analysed by the commission to inform its work. All of this work will culminate in a final report to be delivered to the governor general in Canberra on Friday.
But the commission’s recommendations will only be as effective as the state, territory and federal governments tasked with implementing them, says Prof Leah Bromfield, the co-director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia. For change to occur, Bromfield says, governments and institutions including churches, sporting clubs and schools will have to take the commission’s findings seriously and commit to its recommendations.
“I am fearful that some of the intent of the reforms of the royal commission will get lost in the intergovernmental committee work and that we’ll see a tick-the-box approach where something is done – but it doesn’t speak to the intent of the recommendation and it doesn’t change the lives of children,” Bromfield says.
“And that should be the measure of the implementation of any recommendations or reforms that come out of the royal commission. Has it changed the lives of children? Has it changed the lives of survivors? Are we making the world a better place?
“I think the other risk is this royal commission was so big. With most inquiries you can pinpoint the one government department or one minister who is accountable. An inquiry this big runs the risk that there’s not one person that you can turn to and say: ‘This is your baby and you’re accountable.’”
Already, some of the commission’s recommendations for how a national redress scheme should work have been ignored by governments. The federal government’s redress legislation has attracted criticism for excluding abuse survivors who have been convicted of serious crimes, and for capping redress at $150,000. The royal commission recommended a cap of $200,000. The legislation has been referred to a Senate inquiry by the shadow social services minister, Jenny Macklin. State and territory governments have also been slow to commit to the legislation.
Prof Daryl Higgins, the director of the Institute of Child Protection studies within the Australian Catholic University, agrees with Bromfield that the response from governments, institutions and the community will be key to lasting and meaningful reform.
“I have the utmost respect for the commissioners themselves and for all of the research and the staff involved in the investigations and the preparation of the final report,” he said. “But the final report is the first real chapter in what I think is going to be an ongoing piece of work.”
He believes changing the attitudes of the leaders of organisations will be most important to keeping children safe in future. Reports already published by the royal commission found that failures of leadership led to “catastrophic” abuses of children occurring. Higgins believes every adult tasked with the care of children should reflect on their role in keeping them safe, especially those responsible for children in residential care or the youth justice system.
“It’s really the attitudes [towards children] that I think are the most important thing and my call is for all leaders of all organisations to be thinking through ‘what is it that I can do to support conditions of safety?’,” Higgins says. “And that’s really a call to arms no matter whether [they] are a faith-based or a non-faith based organisation.”
Peter Fox, the former New South Wales detective whose open letter about abuse being covered up by police and religious institutions helped prompt the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, to announce the royal commission in 2012, will be at the final hearing on Thursday. He said he would join abuse survivors and their advocates to watch McClellan’s final address and that he was feeling anxious.
“I suppose the greatest amount of anxiety not just for myself but for so many is to actually see the recommendations implemented,” he said. “In the past we’ve seen royal commissions that governments have cherrypicked what they like out of them but have also left a lot behind.”
He believes the Catholic church in particular needs to be scrutinised on an ongoing basis. A significant proportion of the people who contacted the royal commission made allegations of child sexual abuse occurring in Catholic church institutions, with 37% of those who spoke to commissioners in a private session reporting abuse within institutions managed by the Catholic church.
“We shouldn’t take our eyes off any of them for a moment,” Fox said.
For her part, Bromfield hopes that the official marking of the end of the commission’s work on Thursday won’t mean that its findings to date and the stories of survivors fall from the public consciousness.
“I really worry about what that would say to survivors,” she said. “We’ve had five years where we’ve been trying to say. ‘You matter. This matters. Your story matters.’
“And if we drop it like a hot potato, I can’t imagine how devastating the impact of that would be.”