Royal Commission Long Overdue


The scandal in the Catholic Church that has finally forced the hand of politicians at both the state and federal level is widespread and long-lived. It has damaged the lives of hundreds, probably thousands, of young Australians. It has occurred with the tacit acknowledgement, and perhaps even the active protection, of a church hierarchy that appears to have put the interests of their institution ahead of the rights of victims.

For all of these reasons, the announcement of a wide-ranging Royal Commission of inquiry into child sex crimes by the Prime Minister is welcome. While we don't yet know the terms of reference — these are expected to be worked out before Christmas — the scope of the inquiry canvassed yesterday by Julia Gillard is remarkably ambitious.

It amounts to the investigation of systemic child sex crimes in all major institutions of the land — the churches, schools, sports clubs, non-government organisations and government agencies. A comparable inquiry in Ireland took 10 years.

For this reason there have already been calls this morning to place a deadline on the Royal Commission to prevent it stretching on forever; independent South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon has suggested a span of two years. The thinking appears to be that critical momentum will be lost if the inquiry is allowed to continue for years without at least an interim report being released. In addition, the constant drip-feed of horrendous revelations that seems likely also has the potential to act as an ongoing memory trigger for victims attempting to get on with their lives.

But a quick and dirty inquiry is scarcely in the interests of victims, of justice, or of Australian society at large. The Victorian Parliament is currently undertaking an inquiry of its own, but it lacks many of the powers of a fully fledged Royal Commission and is also constrained by its state jurisdiction. According to New South Wales Detective Inspector Peter Fox — the whistleblower whose public revelations seem finally to have forced politicians to act — there have been systematic attempts to transfer offending priests between Catholic dioceses and across state borders. Those such as Xenophon who are claiming that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to "get it right" will need to bear in mind the complexity and the scale of the likely investigation.

Respected academic Scott Prasser has a measured piece in The Australian today about the powers and structure of Royal Commissions. "Royal commissions, although often chaired by current or former judges, are not courts of law," he points out. "They are appointed by executive government, are instruments of executive government and report to executive government." Prasser cautions that they "do not always get it right regarding their processes or findings".

But the reason we're even talking about a Royal Commission should be obvious: the normal avenues of legal redress have failed. Child sex abuse is a special category of crime in which victims often take years or decades to come forward.

Almost by definition, its victims are among the most powerless in our society — often wards of the state, or orphans in a religious institution. Worse, such crimes can be perpetrated by those with considerable social influence and prestige, not least the institutional power that has accrued to large transnational religious organisations.

In the recent hearings of the Victorian inquiry, for instance, evidence was presented of truly horrifying paedophilia perpetrated by an organised ring in the Hospitaller Order of St John of God, which ran orphanages in Melbourne's outer east from the 1960s to the 1980s. It appears that St John of God conducted its own internal investigation into the allegations in 1997, leading to a multi-million dollar settlement. Critics such as Broken Rites' Wayne Chamley point to the obvious conflicts of interest inherent in church organisations investigating themselves. Chamley also questions the validity and legality of compensation schemes such as the Melbourne Response, in which victims can come forward to make complaints to an extra-judicial church-appointed panel, in return for compensation.

The Victorian parliamentary inquiry has heard that the Catholic Church is keeping hundreds of internal files on sexual abuse complaints, files it is yet to release to either police or the Victorian inquiry. That would appear to put some uncomfortable context around the statement issued yesterday (pdf) by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference that, "it is unacceptable, because it is untrue, to claim that the Catholic Church does not have proper procedures, and to claim that Catholic authorities refuse to cooperate with the police".

The Royal Commission will no doubt attempt to get to the bottom of all this, but, in general, there seems to be an ongoing culture of denial among many dioceses of the Catholic Church in Australia regarding the scale of the sex abuse that has occurred under church auspices and inside church institutions. If the allegations raised by Peter Fox are true, it's much worse than that, with an active and coordinated effort made to cover up some of the gravest crimes imaginable. If this Royal Commission forces the church and the Australian community at large — including law enforcement agencies — to face up to the magnitude of the abuse that has occurred, then it may finally lay the groundwork for a society in which more children can be spared the horror of sexual and physical abuse.

Sexual abuse is ultimately a crime of power. Reading through the findings of the Irish Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, it becomes clear that several factors make children in institutions especially vulnerable to abuse.

The first and most important is the imbalance in power between a child and a perpetrator, especially within an institution where the victim is reliant on that very institution for food and shelter. The second is secrecy. The Irish Commission pointedly found that "witnesses reported that their sense of shame, the power of the abuser, the culture of secrecy and isolation and the fear of physical punishment inhibited them in disclosing abuse." The final factor is denial. As the melancholy chronicle of history records, terrible crimes are often swept under the carpet or otherwise excused, ignored or not properly investigated.

Given the similar structural factors at play — the power imbalances, the secrecy and the denial — it would be surprising if a similar pattern of widespread abuse was not found in Australia. The tragic reality is that cultures of violence and predation, once established, are tenacious and persistent. It has long been past time that Australia faced up to this terrible legacy. Now, finally, we will.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.