Royal Commission: Where to from Here?
By Jack the Insider
December 14, 2017
I was interviewed for the ABCs documentary, Undeniable, which examined the events leading up to the establishment of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse.
Towards the conclusion of the interview I was asked what my expectations were after the Commission handed down its final report.
“Well, what do we want do, burn another generation of children and get back to this in thirty years?”
Some might see that as a flippant remark and perhaps understandably, it found its way to the floor in an editor’s suite.
I thought it was a reasonable point to make because that is where we are now.
The grave concern I have is we will view the royal commission’s work as an historical problem rather than one that exists today. There are some who argue that the worst of the offending occurred in the 1970s and 80s. They may be right. I hope they are. But no one can be sure because what we do know is the lag between the date of the offence and the reporting of it is around 25 years.
Moving forward, we need to avoid the Guiness Book of Records superlatives, dwelling on what institution was worst in the dreadful statistics, pound for pound or weight for age.
Clearly, the Catholic Church has been a principal offender. The Anglican Church in this country has nothing to be proud of. But this appalling business has pervaded almost everywhere from the Scouts, the YMCA, the Salvation Army, children’s homes, orphanages, sporting clubs and associations, other religious groups like the Salvation Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish sects, hippy cults, dance and theatre groups, the ADF and to the most expensive and prestigious private schools in the country.
The commission estimated child sexual abuse has occurred at 4000 institutions across the country. There is more than enough blame to go around.
There are law reform issues for states and territories to consider. We need laws to be consistent across the country. These include facilitating victims’ rights to sue institutions and the withdrawal of the statute of limitations for civil cases in relation to child sexual abuse. Some states have already acted on the latter, others are yet to do so.
Top of the list for any state and territory government must be beefing up the reporting laws on child sexual abuse. Currently and unbelievably there are little or no sanctions available to the courts. Prosecutions are like rocking horse excreta. Queensland is the only state that has a custodial sentence on the books, most others offer only fines. In New South Wales, there is no penalty at all.
We know that senior figures within institutions react reflexively, almost in Pavlovian fashion, when confronted by the knowledge of child sex offending on their watch. They move to protect the reputation of the institution often at the expense of the rights of victims. In that environment child sex offending proliferates.
We have no assurance that leaders of institutions will behave any differently in future. If we take the example of a school principal who becomes aware that a child has been sexually abused at the school and the principal fails to report to police, there virtually no prospect of the principal facing criminal sanction. Institutional leaders need to face the full force of the law for failing to report child sexual abuse and that must involve a jail term. I guarantee behaviours will change.
The commission estimated the total cost of a national redress scheme for 60,000 abuse victims, including administration costs, at $4.3 billion. Payments to victims will be capped at $150,000. The institutions who allowed children to be abused will contribute to the scheme which will commence in 2018.
The federal parliament has acted on this but at present who pays what is grey and uncertain. The offending institutions need to be the major contributors. The taxpayer should not be footing the bulk of the bill.
Just as importantly there needs to be an understanding that victims of institutional child sex abuse will need assistance for the rest of their lives. It cannot simply be a matter of handing them a cheque.
Many victims who received compensation in the past, often a pittance compared to the trauma they endured, went into rapid declines, their meagre payments pounded into poker machines or pissed up against a wall in booze and drugs. The money often exacerbated their problems and sometimes brought their lives to an abrupt end through recklessness and addiction.
There must be provision of counselling services, life skills and adult education programs, community and peer support groups.
My singular disappointment with the royal commission was its apparent reluctance to investigate failures in policing child sexual abuse. .
As many of you know, I was involved in telling the story of Denis Ryan, the Mildura detective who was pushed out of the Victoria Police Force for trying to prosecute a paedophile priest in 1972.
VicPol conspired with the Ballarat Diocese to ensure the priest would not be charged.
I have looked at the rates of offending in the wake of that conspiracy. The effect was twofold. Victims would not report to police because they understood the police would not act. Meanwhile offenders believed they could rape children with impunity. In the Ballarat Diocese, it literally became open season on kids.
It’s not difficult to understand. Tell a safe breaker or an armed robber their criminal behaviour won’t be pursued by police and what would we expect to happen? Obviously, rates of these crimes would escalate. It is no different with child sex offending.
I have no particularly intimate knowledge of matters in Newcastle but a commission of inquiry there found the whistleblower cop, Peter Fox who alleged police were failing to act on credible reports of child sex offending, had made mistakes and lost his objectivity.
Of course he did. He was a whistleblower and whistleblowers make mistakes driven by stress. But rather than examine Fox’s mistakes, the question needed to be asked, how was it that there was so much offending going on in Newcastle and until recently, so few prosecutions to show for it?
Our police forces around the country need to convince us they are better at investigating child sexual abuse than they have been in the past. Public confidence can only be restored by an acknowledgment of the failures in the past. Yet too often, the politics of policing prohibits candid disclosure.
We simply cannot go through this again. We know too much. To allow the preconditions for institutional child sex offending to remain in place, to permit the possibility of future generations of children being subject to these indignities would be a failure on us all.
Put simply, a society that fails to protect its most precious asset, its children, is a failed society and that failure would be on every single one of us because we know the truth now.