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Jul 29, 2014|
Many individuals have found the pluck to speak truth to power, but 3,000 remain on a waiting list to give evidence. We must make time for them to share their stories.
In November 2012 Julia Gillard, Jenny Macklin and Nicola Roxon announced the establishment of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
The Labor government believed that heartbreaking allegations of child sexual abuse justified a royal commission. We also believed that the government must do everything it can to make sure what has happened in the past is never allowed to happen again.
Since it was established in January of last year, the royal commission has interviewed over 1,600 survivors of child sexual abuse, and received a similar number of written accounts of abuse. It made clear in its interim report out last month that if its reporting date is not extended by two years, then many survivors will be denied the opportunity to report their experiences, in particular those from vulnerable and hard-to-reach groups. We are still waiting for the Abbott government to respond to that request.In its interim report, the royal commission said this extension is essential for it to complete the public hearings to fulfilling its terms of reference. I am not surprised – the inquiry opened a floodgate. Courage begets courage. Initial public and private hearings encouraged others to come out of the silence. Around 3,000 people are on a waiting list to give evidence in closed session.
Bearing witness to so many cases of alleged abuse and getting a national perspective of such a complex part of Australia’s history is huge. A comparable Irish Commission took nine years to conduct its inquiry.
Claims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse against vulnerable children and young people and a failure to report them to authorities have attracted widespread condemnation, as they should.
Heart-wrenching testimonials reveal themes of repeated abuse, multiple perpetrators and barriers to reporting the abuse. The royal commission’s work has reminded us about fundamental power dynamics. All abuse, and its cover-up, is about power – the powerful against the powerless. Many individuals have found the pluck to speak truth to power and challenge the actions of those in authority.
We have learnt that institutions put under the spotlight have been shown, too often, to have hierarchical and secretive cultures of suffering that used power over others in ways that did damage, running counter to organizational missions to do good. Some of the stories are not decades old, but very recent and the ripple effects do not go away. When a child is abused, including while in the care of an institution, the impact can be devastating and profound. It can leave a legacy of trauma and distrust of authority for successive generations.
Because of the ground-breaking work of the commission to date, governments, institutions and the public can no longer claim ignorance about the effect of sexual abuse and the extent to which it impacts on sufferers’ lives and their families.
In order to really address cultural problems and prevent the abuse we’ve been made aware of, the commission needs more time to do vital work to inform public policy. Now that commissioners are fully aware of the sheer scale of the problem, we must trust their judgment and grant them the resources and time needed to get on with the job, and do so comprehensively.
While the royal commission does not have the power to provide compensation or initiate prosecutions, it can refer cases to police with a view to their further investigation and prosecution. To address systemic issues and help change what are sick cultures and society-wide attitudes, commissioners must be well equipped to fulfill the terms of reference, identify best practices and recommend the laws, policies, practices and systems that will effectively prevent, or when it occurs, respond to the sexual abuse crimes against children in institutions.
As the inquiry moves to Tasmania for the first time, one expects others to come forward. Still, hearings cast light on many past failures but do not, on their own, deliver better policy in keeping with its terms of reference.
People are our best assets. Labor’s primary interest is not just seeing that people are heard, healed and empowered, but that sound policy is developed to prevent the damage done to too many people over a long time. The Abbott government has already cut funding for this royal commission.It is essential that the government commit the additional funding the commission needs to complete its important work. If it isn’t, thousands of stories will remain unheard and justice will slip further away. No one wants shortcuts into matters as important as these.