Abuse Wrongs 'Must Be Acknowledged'

Sky News
April 3, 2013

The first sitting of the royal commission into sexual abuse has heard past wrongs must be acknowledged.

Justice Peter McClellan was outlining the process under which the commission will operate.

He said the commission had to examine some difficult truths.

'The community has come to acknowledge that fundamental wrongs have been committed in the past which have caused great trauma and lasting damage to many people,' Justice McClellan said at the first sitting in Melbourne on Wednesday.

The commission will not begin hearing evidence until later this year.

Justice McClellan said the extent of abuse and the institutional response to it were among important issues raised by the royal commission's terms of reference.

'It is already apparent from the work done by other inquiries and the cases which have been prosecuted in the courts that children have been sexually abused in a variety of institutions over many decades,' Justice McClellan said.

Justice McClellan said it would be difficult for the commission to complete a proper investigation between now and June 2014, when the interim report is due.

'It is unlikely that the commission can complete its work within the timeframe for the delivery of the final report.'

He said it expected at least 5000 people will want to appear before the commission.

'The number could be much higher,' he added.

He said the commission anticipates each person may need at least an hour in which to tell of his or her experience.

Justice McClellan expects many institutions will co-operate and waive confidentiality clauses they have with victims.

He said if such clauses were not waived the commission had powers to overcome them.

Justice McClellan said it was vital victims of child abuse had their stories heard.

'Part of the task given to us ... is to bear witness, on behalf of the nation, to the abuse and consequential trauma inflicted on many people who have suffered sexual abuse as children,' he said.

'For the individuals who have been traumatised, giving an account of their experiences and telling their story can be an important part of the recovery process.'

Justice McClellan said he expected evidence would not be taken until at least the last quarter of this year.

He expects the commission will hear serious and shocking allegations.

He had been advised the commissioners themselves and their staff could be harmed by constantly hearing the allegations.

Justice McClellan said for that reason it would not be possible for the commission to continuously listen to victims' stories.

Justice McClellan said the commission would not likely finish on the current schedule, as the task defined by the terms of reference was so large.

'However, I propose to use the time between now and the delivery of the interim report to complete as much of our task as we can.'

Justice McClellan said the commission would also be expensive because of the costs of setting up an IT system, setting up premises and travelling around the country.

'The work of the commission will continue to require the commitment of very significant sums of public money,' he said.

Justice McClellan said the findings and recommendations would be made public but it was important to ensure no person who had suffered from abuse was further damaged as a result of the commission.

'The commission recognises the significant potential which the public airing of allegations may have to damage the reputation of individuals or institutions,' Justice McClellan said.

'This is an inevitable consequence of the appointment of a royal commission to inquire into matters of public concern.'

He said the commission would confine the allegations which it placed in the public domain to circumstances where it believed the airing of those allegations was justified.

Justice McClellan said the commission had an obligation to listen to as many accounts as possible.

'We expect that our work will allow the community to move forward with a determination that any wrongdoing which has occurred in the past will not be repeated,' he said.

He said those who had signed confidentiality agreements with institutions would have the commission's protection.

Justice McClellan said he welcomed the Catholic Church's repeated commitments to fully co-operate with the commission.

He said the commission was not a prosecutorial body and would not determine matters of compensation.

'The commission is not tasked with determining whether any person may be entitled to compensation for any injury which they may have suffered.'

Justice McClellan said the commission had already requested documents from several organisations.

'I can indicate that the commission had already served notices on particular bodies within the Catholic Church in Australia and its insurer, the Salvation Army and the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions seeking the production of documents,' he said.

'More notices are being prepared.'

Counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness, SC, said the types of institutions that would form part of the commission's investigations include orphanages, schools, churches, parishes, groups such as the scouts, organised sports, childcare centres, detention centres and the defence forces.

Ms Furness said the commission would consider a number of matters including avenues available for restorative justice, the prevalence of abuse in institutions, organisational impediments to reporting, mandatory reporting, the systems for overseeing the management of complaints and the sentencing regime for sex offenders.

She said another area to be examined would be the checks required for working with children.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.