On Wednesday, 15 July 2015, Justice McClelland, Chair of the Royal Commission, gave an address at the Uniting Church in Australia’s 14th Assembly meeting in Perth. In his address, Justice McClelland told, Although the primary responsibility for the sexual abuse of an individual lies with the abuser and the institution of which they were part, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the problems faced by many people who have been abused are the responsibility of our entire society.
I speak to you today as the Royal Commission enters the second half of its five year term. As you are probably aware the Commission was originally tasked to finish at the end of this year. However, the many and complex issues that we are required to examine led the Commissioners to ask the government for a further two years to complete our work. The Commission will now conclude at the end of 2017. I have told the government that there will definitely be no request for a further extension.
Our terms of reference provide us with two fundamental objectives: to expose what has happened in the past and to make recommendations aimed at ensuring, so far as possible, that children are not sexually abused in an institutional context in the future.
As with any Royal Commission a significant part of our work is done through public hearings. A public hearing will be preceded by intensive investigation and research. Although it may only occupy a limited number of days of hearing time, the preparatory work which must be completed by Royal Commission staff and by parties with an interest in the public hearing can be very significant.
The Royal Commission is aware that sexual abuse of children has occurred in many institutions, all of which could be investigated in a public hearing. However, if we were to attempt that task, a great many more resources would need to be applied over an indeterminate, but lengthy, period of time. For this reason the Commissioners have accepted criteria by which appropriate matters are brought forward to a public hearing as individual ‘case studies’.
The decision to conduct a case study is informed by whether or not the hearing will advance an understanding of systemic issues and provide an opportunity for institutions to learn from previous mistakes. We must ensure that any findings and recommendations for future change that the Royal Commission makes have a secure foundation. In some cases the relevance of the lessons to be learned will be confined to the institution the subject of the hearing. However, in most cases they will have relevance to many similar institutions in different parts of Australia.
Public hearings are also held to tell the story of some individuals. They assist in a public understanding of the nature of sexual abuse, the circumstances in which it may occur and, most importantly, the devastating impact it can have on people’s lives.
When the Commission was appointed, it was apparent to the Australian Government that many people (possibly thousands) would wish to tell us about their personal history of sexual abuse. As a result the Commonwealth Parliament amended the Royal Commission Act 1902 to create a process called a ‘private session.’
A private session is conducted by one or two Commissioners and is an opportunity for a person to tell their story of abuse in a protected and supportive environment. We have now completed 3,766 private sessions. There are presently 1,527 people waiting in the queue. We receive applications for private sessions at a rate of almost 50 per week. I can also indicate that I have now referred 666 matters, most coming from private sessions, to police to investigate with a view to prosecution of an offender.
The people who we talk to in private sessions cover a broad spectrum of Australian society. Each of them has been betrayed by a trusted adult. Each of their individual experiences has left a mark on their lives. For some the lifelong consequences have been catastrophic. Each person’s story is unique with impacts of greater or lesser significance in their life journey and with differing impacts upon their psychological and physical well-being. It is also reported to us that there are many people who cannot tell their story. They have taken their own lives.
Commissioners sometimes hear the stories of people who, despite traumatic childhood experiences have never lost their capacity to love and care for others.
We have witnessed humour and ingenuity among survivors. But we have also seen profound sorrow, grief and pain that for many may never go away. The label Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder does not convey the full extent of the suffering of these people.
The link between childhood sexual abuse and physical and mental health problems later in life is well-established. Both Australian and international studies have found that, amongst other debilitating effects, childhood sexual abuse results in higher rates of depression, eating disorders and social anxiety. Child sexual abuse has been linked to psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia.
Although the impact of sexual abuse on survivors has been the subject of academic research it has not, in my view, been well understood in the general community. The assumption that penetrative sexual abuse of a child leads to the worst outcomes for survivors has only limited empirical support. That assumption is embedded in the criminal law of the various states and territories. In fact abuse which many lawyers and others have traditionally regarded as relatively minor can have devastating and lifelong consequences for some survivors.
Commissioners have heard many stories from family members who have told the story of a loved one who has committed suicide. What is perhaps lesser known about the links between child sexual abuse and mental health is that it is not only the impact of the abuse itself that can lead to devastating outcomes for survivors. There are impacts on the survivor’s family and others in the community which may be just as critical.
It is now apparent that when our task is complete we will have documented a period in Australian society when institutions failed the children in their care. I do not mean to condemn every institution. It is clear that many were managed and sustained by the efforts of both volunteers and paid workers who understood how to manage an institution that provides for the welfare of children. But even then we can recognise that many well-intentioned people did not understand and did not respond to failures which should have been obvious in the institutions of which they were part. Although some institutions operated as single entities most have some integrated or overarching management arrangement or doctrinal regime. Failures may have been evident in the actions of one or a number of people but that does not excuse those in responsible positions who failed to provide appropriate policies to guide the institution and practices to inhibit the actions of offenders.
From the work we have done we know that there have been failures to protect children in residential facilities, schools, including boarding schools, Christian churches of every character, Jewish organisations, kindergartens, after school care, sporting organsiations, dance classes, music organsations, scouts, hospitals and other institutions. There is no difference in the nature of the allegations nor in the mechanism for institutional failure between institutions conducted by the g
overnment and those in the private sector. When the institution provided residential care it is common to find sexual abuse accompanied by high levels of physical abuse and exploitation of the children’s labour, often for little if any reward.
A picture is emerging for us that although sexual abuse of children is not confined in time – it is happening today – there has been a time in Australian history when the conjunction of prevailing social attitudes to children and an unquestioning respect for authority of institutions by adults coalesced to create the high risk environment in which thousands of children were abused.
The societal norm that “children should be seen but not heard”, which prevailed for unknown decades, provided the opportunity for some adults to abuse the power which their relationship with the child gave them. When the required silence of the child was accompanied by an unquestioning belief by adults in the integrity of the carer for the child, be they youth worker, teacher, residential supervisor or cleric, the power imbalance was entrenched to the inevitable detriment of many children. When, amongst adults, who are given the power, there are people with an impaired psycho-sexual development, a volatile mix is created.
You may read the remainder of Justice McClelland’s address to the Uniting Church Assembly in Perth on the Royal Commission Website.