Royal Commission: Confronting the Complexity

Justice Peter McClellan

Justice Peter McClellan took time out to address an international men’s health symposium in Brisbane on Thursday, 12 June, and detailed the range of institutions in which child abuses has occurred. Justice McClellan gave an overview of the Royal Commission’s work thus far and the tasks which remain in order to satisfy the charge given to the Royal Commission in the Letters Patent.

International Men's Health Symposium Brisbane

Improving Responses to Men Seuxally Abused in Childhood: Confronting the Complexity

Justice Peter McClellan AM
Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

Thursday 12 June 2014

We have now received the stories of more than 1,730 people in private sessions. There are around 1,000 further people who have been accepted for a private session. We continue to receive requests for private sessions at the rate of 40 per week. We have also received more than 1,650 written accounts from people who generally have not been to a private session.

When we commenced our work we were told that there were many people who would be cautious about contacting the Commission. They would prefer to wait and see whether they could trust our processes before coming forward. We are now receiving calls from people who tell us they have watched the Commission, followed its public hearings and listened to others who have come to us. Now that they understand the nature of the Commission and trust our processes they feel safe in telling us their story. We can expect that, as confidence grows, many more people will come forward.

Our program of private sessions is ongoing in every capital city and in some regional and remote centres. In recent weeks we commenced to conduct private sessions within the prison system. A Commissioner has also travelled to north western Australia to conduct private sessions. Our engagement with the prison system and in places outside of the main population centres will continue. However, it is not possible to identify how many people will want to talk to us from these locations.

Activities of the Royal Commission

  • By 31 May 2014, we had held a total of 12 public hearings. They have been held in Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney. We had 96 days of hearings, during which we heard from 219 witnesses.
  • By 30 June 2014, we will have completed 21 research projects. We anticipate that we will have completed 52 research projects by the end of 2015.
  • By 30 June 2014, we will have released seven issues papers. We have received more than 300 submissions in response to the first five.
  • We held a community roundtable on 1 April 2014 which focused on out-of-home care. The second to be held next week will focus on Working with Children Checks.
  • By 31 May 2014, we had issued 643 notices or summonses to produce, and received around 400,000 documents in response. We also issued 246 notices or summonses to witnesses to appear before the Royal Commission.
  • We have received more than 13,500 phone calls at our call centre, and more than 5,500 pieces of correspondence.
  • I have referred over 160 matters to the police for investigation.

Investigating Systemic Failures

As the government originally contemplated it is now possible for us to identify the tasks which we must complete to effectively respond to the Letters Patent. When developing our plan we have been careful to reflect the essential obligations in the Letters Patent. They stress that it is important that claims of systemic failures by institutions in relation to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse be fully explored, and that best practice is identified. Further they state that it is important that those affected by child sexual abuse can share their experiences to assist with healing and to inform the development of strategies and reforms.

The Letters Patent require us to make recommendations about policy, legislative, administrative or structural reforms.

Since we began our work we have received allegations of abuse from people in more than 1,000 institutions. It has been suggested by some people that the problems we are looking at are all “historical”, happened in the past and are unlikely to occur today. An analysis of the institutions reported to us in private sessions confirms that, although it is possible that the level of abuse has diminished, the reality is that the potential remains.

Because private sessions are conducted with people who self-report, care should be taken before using this analysis for statistical purposes. However, it is informative and provides a contemporary context for sexual abuse allegations.

Scope of Institutions

Thirty two percent of the institutions reported to us can be described as an industrial school, training school, reformatory, orphanage or children’s home. Some of the children in these facilities would have been part of the child migration program in the third quarter of the last century. Others would have been born out of wedlock, and because of the cultural norm of that time, surrendered to institutional care. It can be assumed that with the cessation of those programs and the widespread use of contraception and more accepting social attitudes the risk to children in those circumstances has been removed.

However, with the closure of orphanages and similar residential institutions for children, the problems which children previously faced when living in dysfunctional families or without effective care from a parent or guardian have not disappeared. Many of those children will today find their way into out-of-home care. Others of them who have encountered difficulties with the justice system will end up in some form of detention. They remain vulnerable to abuse, although in a different institutional setting.

Apart from this group there are three other types of institutions which are subject to high levels of complaint in the reports we have received in private sessions. Thirty percent of our private sessions have been conducted with people who were abused in a school or other educational setting. Sixteen percent have told us they were abused in a place of worship, in a church youth group or seminary. About eight percent report abuse in out-of-home care.

The balance of those coming to us in private sessions report abuse in a variety of circumstances including child care, sporting groups, health care and juvenile justice. We can assume that the number of children in child care – both day care and after school care – will have increased.

It is obvious that in any institution which has responsibility for children there is a risk of sexual abuse. As I have said it is only the child migrant children and children born out of wedlock who are no longer in institutions. All of the other institutions and accordingly opportunities for abuse remain.

Risk always Remains

Some types of institutions, in particular out-of-home care, and child day care and after school care have increased in number over recent years. Because it takes, on average, more than 20 years for people to report abuse, in some cases significantly longer, it is wrong to assume that abuse of children in an institutional context is a problem of the past. The task of the Royal Commission is to identify appropriate recommendations to respond to a problem which, although of necessity described by past events, must respond to future risks.

I have described on previous occasions the care with which the Royal Commission selects institutions to be considered in a public hearing. Although some must be hearings in relation to institutions which have ceased to exist many are not. We have conducted public hearings into the Scouts, YMCA, three schools, two diocesan churches a
nd the Salvation Army. All of these institutions continue to exist. The risk of abuse accordingly remains. We will continue to select public hearings where we can develop issues of present relevance and develop contemporary responses.

Faith-based institutions, whether residential facilities, schools or diocesan constitute a significant proportion of the institutions reported to us by survivors. Many of these are Catholic institutions. Although we will look at a representative sample of all institutions in public hearings it is inevitable that there will be multiple Catholic institutions which must be considered.

Ongoing Personal Suffering

Apart from suffering personal health issues many survivor’s lives have been seriously compromised in other ways. In some cases the damage is so great that they have never been able to complete an education, establish satisfactory personal relationships and provide the security of a home and other basics of life. The process by which the sexual abuse of a child can seriously damage the personal development of the individual may not be fully understood. However, it is clear beyond argument that in some people this will occur. To help with these difficulties many survivors seek a money payment. For some it brings an acknowledgement of the failure of the institution. But for others it reflects a need for financial assistance to sustain their lives.

There are many other issues which the Royal Commission must address. They are discussed in the Interim Report which will be provided to governments on 30 June. The Commissioners look forward to engaging with both individuals and institutions throughout the country to develop recommendations which will achieve the objective of making our institutions safer places for children. This is an opportunity for all of us to bring fundamental and lasting change to the wellbeing of children in an institutional context.

You may read the full address by Justice McClelland here


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