‘i Now Feel Free and Can Live My Life.’ Australian Commission Gives Voice to Child Sexual Abuse Survivors
January 2, 2018
Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was always certain to stir controversy, particularly with regard to the Catholic Church, and it did just that when it delivered its final report on 15 December 2017.
The Royal Commission came about because of, as the report explains, “the sexual and other abuse of children in institutional settings, and the reluctance of those institutions involved to address this problem.” Its five years of hearings had already revealed widespread criminality, cover-ups and systemic failures across a wide range of both religious and other organisations.
According to the final report, the commission, which cost 500 million Australian dollars (380 million US dollars), was contacted by 16,953 people covered by its terms of reference, heard from 7,981 survivors of child sexual abuse in 8,013 private sessions, received 1,344 written accounts, referred 2,562 matters to police and made 409 recommendations.
For many people, its real achievement has been to air the voices of individual survivors who in many cases have waited decades to be heard. A total of 3,956 survivor “Narratives” are on the commission website with this warning: “This story is about child sexual abuse. It may contain graphic descriptions and strong language, and may be confronting and disturbing.”
It has also published a book, “Message to Australia“, containing handwritten messages from survivors to be kept at the National Library of Australia. They can be viewed online. These are just three of the 1,054:
I now feel free and can live my life.
Please be kind to children. Don’t tell lies. Always tell the truth if children are hurt like me.
In 1978 a little boy started CRYING… In 2014, he still is.
‘It’s essential we don’t apply a moral judgement to redress…’
One of the key issues has been the redress of past and future child sexual abuse, including monetary compensation. Recommendations from 2015 calling on the Australian federal government to set up a single national scheme have yet to be fully implemented.
Federal parliament has yet to pass legislation and some key states and institutions have not committed themselves. Queensland law professor Ben Mathews examined the implications in an article for news analysis site The Conversation:
This watershed inquiry has created the conditions for a seachange in how society deals with child sexual abuse in institutions, which can flow to our treatment of sexual abuse in other settings.
[…] We must focus our efforts on the future, but we must also ensure we properly deal with the past. Perhaps the single most important aspect of this is the redress scheme.
Others have a problem with the proposed scheme's coverage:
Controversially, the government proposes to exclude from redress anyone convicted of sex offences, and those sentenced to prison terms of five years or more for crimes such as serious drug, homicide or fraud offences.
This proposal is profoundly flawed and a step backward. […] Although it might be politically popular – and less expensive – to separate applicants into the categories of “deserving” and “undeserving” victims, it is morally wrong to do so.
Matthew Bowden is one of many people on social media who agree:
‘As a human being and a Catholic I am appalled…’
A considerable amount of media and public attention has concerned the Catholic Church in Australia. This graph from the Final Report – Preface and executive summary helps to explain why:
|Proportion of survivors who told us they were abused in a religious institution (%) – source Final Report – Preface and executive summary (CC BY 4.0)|
Two issues are particularly challenging for the Catholic Church. The commission recommends (Reco. 7.4) that “information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession” not be exempt from laws regarding mandatory reporting. The so-called sacrosanct (untouchable) nature of the confessional has brought strong responses such as @noplaceforsheep’s tweet:
Adrian Piccoli reacted strongly to news that the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, had repeated his belief that the seal of the confessional can't be broken:
In addition, the commission (Reco. 16.18) has asked the Australian Catholic bishops to request Pope Francis to consider making celibacy voluntary for diocesan (parish) clergy.
Rachel Bills “snorted” a note of cynicism:
Meanwhile a committal hearing for Australia’s only Catholic cardinal, George Pell, will take place next March to decide whether he will stand trial on undisclosed sexual charges. It will be held behind closed doors.
‘We hope…survivors will feel validated, heard, encouraged…’
There are many reminders online that the commisssion has exposed child sexual abuse by numerous religious groups and other organisations. For example, Jim Luthy has clearly lost all trust in the Salvation Army:
The royal commission is arguably the most significant outcome of Julia Gillard’s three years as prime minister from 2010 to 2013. Her role in calling the inquiry was not forgotten:
The other person to receive high praise is commission chair Justice Peter McClellan, who is to retire as an appeal judge of the New South Wales Supreme Court in 2018:
Some final words from the commission:
We hope that the act of sharing these narratives with the public will contribute to a better understanding of the profound impact of child sexual abuse and that survivors will feel validated, heard, encouraged and strengthened by their publication.