Final Report From Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses To Child Sexual Abuse Urges Major Reform

The final report from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was handed to Governor-General Peter Cosgrove on Friday, marking an end to the five-year investigation. Institutions from all religions, States, and Territories were held accountable in the report, with recommendations aimed at each specific type of institution. The final report is over 17 volumes in length, arising from 57 public hearings, 8,000 private sessions, 1,200 witnesses, and 400 days of testimony that led to commissioners making 409 recommendations. Approximately 4,000 institutions were reported to the Royal Commission, which referred to the names of more than 2,500 accused to police.

Chief Royal Commissioner Justice Peter McClellan described the abuse as a “national tragedy” and emphasized that child sexual abuse is still a problem in Australian institutions. “We were told of many cases of abuse that occurred in the last ten years,” he said. McClellan stated that some children are still in a school where abuse is happening. The number of child sexual abuse victims is estimated to be in the tens of thousands, but the true number is not known. Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, announced the Royal Commission in 2012 and while a thorough investigation was necessary, it has unfortunately been a time-consuming one. This has left child sexual abuse survivors in a state of turmoil for the last five years as they have relived the trauma in telling the Royal Commission of their story. The final hearing recommendations need to be followed by all institutions if child sexual abuse is to be eradicated in Australia.

The Royal Commission made many recommendations for the nation’s religious institutions, particularly as 60% of survivors said that they were abused in a Catholic institution. The final report stated that Australian institutions allowed a “culture of violence and intimidation to prevail.” Momentously, the Royal Commission suggested that anyone in a religious ministry that is accused of child sexual abuse shall be permanently removed from the industry if the claim is substantiated. It was recommended that during religious confession a religious minister should be forced to report any child sexual abuse they become aware of and for the Catholic Church to make celibacy voluntary for clergy members. The commission also recommended the creation of a criminal offence that will make it easier to prosecute institutions who failed to protect children and the establishment of a website and helpline to report child abuse alongside a national office for child safety. Furthermore, the Royal Commission said that all Jewish institutions should explicitly state that the Jewish law Mesirah, which forbids Jews from informing on a fellow Jew, does not apply when reporting child sexual abuse to police.  The Anglican Church was recommended to construct a uniform framework to make bishops accountable to a formal body in response to complaints of child sexual abuse. Meanwhile the Jehovah’s Witness organization was urged to demolish the two-witness rule that requires two eye-witnesses to a child sexual abuse allegation.

State and territory governments were also held accountable, with the final report recommendations stating that the state and territory governments should exclude good character as a mitigating factor in child sexual abuse cases, excluding New South Wales and South Australia. The Royal Commission would also like to see grooming laws extended so that not only is it an offence to groom children, but also to groom their parents or carers. The report stated that state and territory governments should provide guidance to teachers about how to respond to child sexual abuse and boarding schools should be monitored to enforce child safety standards.

The Commonwealth Government also has much work to do to ensure the safety of Australia’s children. The Royal Commission recommended that the Commonwealth Government establish a national working with children check model within the next year so that data can be shared between states. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection was urged to audit the child safety standards implemented by detention centre staff. Moreover, in 2015 the Commission recommended a national redress scheme to benefit victims of institutional child sexual abuse in Australia. The Royal Commission believed that this scheme should be in effect by mid-2017. Yet, the $4 billion scheme has not helped any victims yet. The compensation funds would be sourced from institutions where it has been proved that abuse occurred, however, some of these institutions no longer exist. When this happens, the Commonwealth, states, and territories must pay the compensation and thus, the states and territories are unlikely to agree to the recommendation out of concern for their budget. In this instance, where the states are unsure if they will participate, the Commonwealth Government brought the atrocities inflicted on Australians to the forefront and gave child abuse survivors the compensation they deserve in an act of accountability for its failings to protect these children. It is only through accountability and action that the nation can heal from the terrible breach of care that Australian children were subjected to at the hands of trusted adults.

To resolve this terrible injustice, Australia must enact all of the Royal Commission’s recommendations. Primarily, acting on these recommendations will ensure that no child suffers through sexual abuse in an Australian institution again. In the case that child sexual abuse is identified in an institution, if all the Commission’s suggested policies are enforced, the abuser will not be free to abuse again. If the Commonwealth, state, and territory governments enact all the recommendations from the Commission it will prove to Australian institutions that the government is serious about ending the child abuse epidemic and the era of cover-ups will no longer be tolerated.  The Royal Commission was a very effective, peaceful mediator for conflict resolution as it highlighted the failures of almost all sections of society and remained unbiased in its recommendations. Thus, the nation is left unified in the agreement to stop child sexual abuse in Australian institutions.

Olivia Reed

Olivia studies a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia.