Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Amendment Bill

Royal_Commission_into_child_sexual_abuse.jpgOn 12 November last year, the Prime Minister announced the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The announcement did not come out of thin air; it came, in part, as the conclusion of a long-running campaign by victims, by their advocates and by many others within the community to have such a national royal commission held.

As result of that, it was welcomed by victims, advocates, MPs and, I must say, even many church organisations. I welcome the establishment of a royal commission. I have believed for some time that this was the appropriate course of action for the Australian government to take. I do not rush quickly to the call for royal commissions. They have great investigative powers which, when combined with the constant scrutiny of the mass media, can alter the course of public opinion—and even personal reputation—well in advance of any findings and recommendations being recorded, and certainly well in advance of any prosecutorial process being concluded or even commenced.

I believe that royal commissions should only be used when it is clear that both policing and judicial determination have failed or are inadequate to the task. In relation to the question of institutional responses to child sexual abuse, I believe that this is such a case. Our children have had their trust betrayed. We have heard stories of child abusers being moved from place to place to avoid having their crimes dealt with. We have heard revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil. This royal commission process will, I hope, be a healing process. But I specifically hope that its recommendations will help ensure that it never happens again.

Child abuse is always wrong. It is heartbreaking for the victims and for their families. It is always deeply distressing. Many people in my community have told me of their distress on hearing of these terrible stories of abuse and of damaged souls and broken faith. When we know that this tragedy exists, we want to see action taken. We all want to do everything we can to ensure that we do not see it in the future—that we do not see institutions fail to respond if there are allegations of child abuse in their midst. I hope that this royal commission can guide us to that place. This is not because there is some grand conspiracy between police, courts and church organisations—I simply do not believe that to be the case. But what is clear, and in some instances admitted, is that church organisations actively sought to cover up their offences. I know this from firsthand experience in the school that I attended, in the region that I now represent. Regrettably, Cardinal Pell attempted to explain this in an interview with the Weekend Australian last year, when he said:

"It wasn't just the Catholic Church that hoped (an abusive priest) would amend their conduct and give them a home somewhere else," he said.

"Back in those days, they were entitled to think of pedophilia as simply a sin that you would repent of. They didn't realise that in the worst cases it was an addiction, a raging addiction."

The problem with this view is that sexual abuse of children is not just a sin, whether it is a raging addiction or otherwise—it is a crime. It was then and it is now. And any decent moral code would also see the cover-up of child abuse as sinful as it is a crime. Above and beyond that, it is the crime of conspiracy.

My church, the Catholic Church, has been at the centre of the storm. I do not believe that it is the only institution in the country that has behaved in this way. Therefore, a royal commission should not be confined to the affairs of any one religious institution in any one state. Some have suggested that calls for a broad based inquiry are the result of a latent anti-Catholicism. I am sure there are some people in the community who harbour this sort of bigotry, but I do not believe that it is religious prejudice that motivates the majority.

I know of many Catholics who share my view. There are many, like my father, who made great sacrifices to send their children to a school and to a church, believing that in doing so they were honouring God's work and raising their children in their faith. Words cannot describe the complete betrayal they felt on learning that those they had trusted with their children—the parish priest, the principal and others—had been engaged in serial offences.

Many senior church people I have spoken to make the point that these events occurred in the past and the church has changed its way. This misses the point. As each new incident is uncovered it continues to damage the reputation of all churches and church-run institutions. It feeds the popular belief that a conspiracy continues right up until this day. A royal commission is the only way for the truth to be known and for the church to truly demonstrate that it has purged itself not only of the past culture of cover-ups but also of the perpetrators. Confession is a very Catholic thing.

It is important to note that this royal commission is not a prosecutorial process. Justice Peter McClellan, in setting out the purpose and the processes, made a public statement of the Royal Commission. He said:

It is important to understand that the Commission is not a prosecuting body. Our investigative processes will be utilised to receive and consider what we expect will be accounts by individuals who tell of their experience when living within or when they were associated with an institution. The Commission will be concerned to examine these individual accounts to determine how the circumstances arose, the relevant management practices of the institution in which they occurred and the response which the institution has made to any complaint of sexual abuse by an individual. Because the Commission is not a prosecuting body it will establish links with the appropriate authorities in each State and Territory to whom a matter may be referred with the expectation that where appropriate prosecutorial proceedings may commence. It is also important to understand that the Commission is not charged with determining whether any person may be entitled to compensation for any injury which they may have suffered.

This is a commission that has been set up to let some sunlight in on some very sorry practices. The bill before the House will assist the commission and commissioners in conducting this inquiry. It will authorise the chair of a royal commission constituted by more than one member to authorise one or more members to hold hearings, to have general application to royal commissions. It will also authorise the chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to authorise members to hold private sessions, to facilitate people affected by child sexual abuse, in an institutional context, to present their accounts to the commission in an informal setting and not under oath.

Given the subject matter of these proceedings, these are entirely sensible amendments to the Royal Commissions Act. The royal commission will inquire into how institutions with a responsibility for children have managed and responded to allegations of child sexual abuse and related matters. I cannot think of a more difficult area of inquiry for a person to sit on—to gather evidence, to advocate on behalf of victims or the commission or to assist in gathering evidence and reporting on this. We know from experiences in other countries and jurisdictions that these inquiries can go on for many years. The Prime Minister made the point, in announcing the commission, that it will take as long as it takes to ensure that we find out what has gone on and provide some justice to the victims of these terrible crimes.

I am very proud to be standing here addressing the legislation before the House. I am very proud to be an MP in a government that has had the courage to take this issue on and to ensure, to the extent that an injustice has gone on in the past, that this generation is not a part of a continued cover-up. I commend the legislation to the House.