The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has come a long way since it first began hearings in April 2013. Since then, it’s made almost 2,000 referrals to authorities, held more than 6,500 private sessions, and handled almost 40,000 phone calls. But with so much ground to cover, where is it up to now and what’s left to go?
Why are we having a royal commission?
The child abuse royal commission was first announced in November 2012 by the Gillard government following calls that year for a national inquiry into how the Catholic Church handled allegations of abuse. “The allegations that have come to light recently about child sexual abuse have been heartbreaking,” Ms Gillard said at the time.
The announcement was triggered by explosive allegations on Lateline from a former priest and a senior NSW police officer that the Catholic Church was covering up claims of abuse.
It was also prompted by reports of clerical abuse in the Newcastle and Hunter Valley regions by journalist Joanne McCarthy in the Newcastle Herald. The alleged cover-ups related to claims of abuse dating back to as early as the 1950s.
NSW Judge of Appeal Peter McClellan was chosen to head the royal commission alongside five other commissioners appointed from outside of government. A focus of the royal commission was to hear the personal accounts of abuse victims, many of whom are now adults.
What is a royal commission?
- The highest form of public inquiry commissioned by the Australian Government into matters of great national importance
- Set up temporarily on an ad hoc basis, royal commissions draw on public input and can take place over several months or years
- They have wide-ranging powers to cross-examine, obtain evidence, and protect witnesses
What did it set out to achieve?
The royal commission set out to examine the way institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs, police, community and government organisations have historically responded to allegations of child sexual abuse.
The royal commission has made public the most substantial dataset to date of the extent of abuse within the Catholic church in Australia between 1950 and 2010.
It’s important to first of all note that although the royal commission has made thousands of referrals to authorities, it was not created to prosecute individuals. It was instead designed to look at how entire systems have failed abuse victims from a national perspective.
It sought to look at where measures recommended by previous inquiries had worked, and see where they could be applied in different jurisdictions. Another key aim was to make recommendations for how to better protect children in the future.
While there had previously been convictions for sex crimes within the church before the royal commission, child sexual abuse wasn’t seen as a matter for the Commonwealth. In fact two states, NSW and Victoria, were already conducting their own overlapping inquiries at the time the royal commission began.
Has the Federal Government responded yet?
Yes, most significantly in the form of a national redress scheme announced by the Federal Government in November last year for victims of institutional abuse. The scheme was recommended by the royal commission in early 2015 and it’s now up to the states and territories to opt in.
When it’s launched next year, victims will be able to access up to $150,000 each, costing the Commonwealth between $570 million and $770 million over 10 years.
Who is George Pell and why does he matter?
Cardinal George Pell is the highest ranking member of the Catholic Church in Australia and is currently in charge of the annual finances of the Holy See and the Vatican in Italy.
A key figure in the royal commission, Cardinal Pell began his career as a priest in Ballarat, before becoming Archbishop of Melbourne and then a Cardinal. Although he first agreed to cooperate with the royal commission, Cardinal Pell accused the media of waging a campaign against the church over “exaggerated” child sex abuse claims.
He failed to make a long-awaited appearance before the royal commission in late 2015, saying a heart condition prevented him from travelling to Australia. Commissioners eventually questioned Cardinal Pell by video link at hearings held in a Rome hotel, during which time he said he had “the full backing of the Pope”.
Cardinal Pell has himself been investigated by Victoria Police for allegations of child abuse from the 1970s to the 1990s, prompting Victoria Police officers to fly to Rome to interview him in October last year. There is no suggestion Cardinal Pell is guilty of allegations of sexual abuse made against him and he has repeatedly rejected each of them.
The case is now with Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions after police handed over a brief of evidence in February.
When is the royal commission due to finish?
The royal commission is set to deliver its final report in December this year.
Because its scope is so large and covers such a long period of time, it was granted a two-year extension and funding injection in 2014.
The head of the royal commission, Justice Peter McClellan, had previously asked for 100 more staff to handle the influx of evidence.
A similar national inquiry in Ireland took a decade to complete, handing down its final report to the Irish parliament in 2009.