Institutional responses to child sexual abuse

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Whitlam) (19:39): This is a speech about institutional responses to child sexual abuse—in particular, the response of the school that I attended—and a statement in support of the boys who were affected.

First, I have some background. When I was my first elected to parliament, I visited the aged-care home for the Christian Brothers in Waverly. I was keen to see a man whom I had not seen in decades; his name was Brother Bell. He had been an inspiring teacher in my formative years at Edmund Rice College in Wollongong. I asked for, and he gave me, a Bible so that I could be sworn in on it on my first day in parliament. I have the Bible here. It is a modest book—as modest and effective as the man who gave it to me. If my faith in the church has faltered in the 35 years since he taught me, my faith in this man has not. He lived a life of selfless service. Sadly, some of his brethren were not made of the same stuff.

In my tumultuous first term as an MP, I was proud to be a member of a government—the Gillard government—which established the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. When we look at the work that the royal commission has done—the crimes and cover-ups that it has uncovered—it seems hard to believe today that its establishment could have been controversial. It was. Many powerful people resisted it. I believe the establishment of the royal commission is one of Julia Gillard's enduring legacies. For too long, the victims of child sexual abuse were ignored and, in many institutions, the perpetrators were protected.

The impact it had on boys at my school cannot be underestimated, nor can the impact of denial and cover-ups that accompanied the original crimes and allowed them to be repeated in place after place and with victim after victim. Two weeks ago, I visited my old school. This time it was to see the principal—a good man running a good school. I wanted to assure him that this statement did not reflect upon the management and the boys who are now attending that school. When I look back at my years at Edmund Rice College in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were mostly happy. I worked hard and did well. There was a darker side, though. For many years, the school had seemed to be a dumping ground for sex offenders. We now know that there were Brothers who were moved from other schools in Sydney after complaints and allegations of child sexual abuse.

One example was Brother Chris Roberts. He attended St Patrick's College Sutherland from 1975 to 1977. After complaints there, he was moved to St Edmund's College in Canberra, where he taught from the late 1970s to early 1980s. Again, there were more incidents and more complaints. He was moved from Canberra to Wollongong. Remarkably, earlier this year he was charged with 21 sexual offences over that long period. On 15 June this year, Brother Roberts pleaded guilty to 11 of the 21 charges.

When Roberts was convicted, I broke a long silence on the matter. I spoke of my time at school when the form master, the principal and even the parish priest were engaged in the crime of paedophilia. Of course, as young boys we did not have a name for their behaviours. We thought they were a bit creepy. We would go to great lengths to avoid being caught alone with them. Even as kids we could see there was a huge gap between what they taught us and the way they behaved; its name was hypocrisy. I have been asked why I did not speak out at the time. It is a good question. I am pleased that the pathways that are available for kids today are so much clearer. It was not the case back then, particularly when every normal link in the chain for complaining was filled by people who were themselves involved in the crimes.

I also recall the saddest conversation that I ever had with my father, when he apologised to me for what he thought was a great failing: sending us to a school where these men preyed upon his children and others' children. I attempted to comfort him, but he would not have it. He confessed that, even if we had told him, he would not have believed us. It was, for him, so outside his experience and the way he had lived his life that he would not have believed that this was possible.

In February this year, Cardinal George Pell was examined by the royal commission. He was questioned on how much he knew about the paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale and sexual assaults in Victoria. The claim that he knew nothing of the priest's many crimes beggar belief, but, tragically, it was not this that caused the greatest alarm. It was his admission that this sad story of Ridsdale's victims 'wasn't of much interest to me'.

My purpose today is to say to those men who felt ignored, who were disbelieved and who felt the burning fury of denial: I know it happened. The shame is not yours. We cannot change the past. We can only hope to bring justice to the victims, the perpetrators and those who covered it up, and to ensure that it does not happen again.