Justice Begins At Last For Abuse Victims


Julia Gillard's Government may be beleaguered and bloodied, but the slow grind of public policy continues.

This week furnished a number of examples. Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens was re-appointed for another three years, a significant decision that will affect a hypothetical Abbott government. With the economy on the improve, Stevens will continue to play a critical role in Australian economic policy-making until 2016. It will be interesting to see how Joe Hockey reacts when he starts tightening interest rates again.

But far more important than this was the opening of a judicial inquiry in Melbourne. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, to give it its full name, will undoubtedly become one of the most important legacies of Julia Gillard's prime ministership. For the first time in our nation's history, a formal inquiry with full judicial powers will attempt to unravel the sordid history of sexual abuse in Australian churches, schools, orphanages and other organisations.

The scale of the undertaking is indeed vast. The chair of the inquiry, Justice Peter McClellan, said yesterday that the commission would most likely need more time than the 2016 deadline given to it. More than 5000 victims are expected to give evidence. The budget, at $22 million, is also expected to be blown. It could take five years; then again, Ireland's commission took 10.

McClellan told the Victorian County Court (pdf) that the inquiry's role would be to bear witness to the abuses, to provide a full account of what occurred, and to make recommendations to prevent future crimes.

"The Commissioners accept that on behalf of the nation, they have been asked to bear witness to the past experiences of those who have suffered child sexual abuse in institutions. We have a responsibility to use those accounts to make further inquiry and ultimately to provide an authoritative account of the events and make recommendations about the way forward."

Journalists attending the opening hearing yesterday in Melbourne reported an atmosphere of excitement amongst many attending. According to the ABC's Simon Lauder, “the courtroom was pretty packed and there was an air of excitement, even elation, the day has finally come.” Crikey's Amber Jamieson wrote that “over half of those sitting in room three on level three of the Victorian County Court appeared to be survivors who had come along to find out how their voices would be heard.” Jamieson overheard “a lot of conversations which began: 'Big day today, eh?'; 'Exciting day.'”

A group called the Care Leavers Australia Network has been campaigning for years for a full judicial inquiry into abuses in institutions, particularly those run by various churches. “The public needs to know what happened to us, we're the invisible children and when we did try to speak out, we weren't believed,” CLAN's Leonie Sheedy told the ABC. “It's very difficult for us to tell our stories. I hope that people will come forward and tell their stories to the Royal Commission.”

The commission is now gathering evidence and taking calls from victims, in what will be the beginning of a long and arduous process. It is likely to hear accounts of almost unimaginable cruelty; McClellan warned that there are psychological risks for people exposed to the testimony. The light that will be shone into the darker recesses of Australian history will be horrifying for some, and uncomfortable for many. Respected institutions, including the Catholic church, are likely to come under intense scrutiny.

Surely, that is as it should be. Child sexual abuse is a stain upon our society which many of us have long suspected, but which few have been prepared to face up to the full extent of. Now we will be forced to. It will test of our view of contemporary Australia as a tolerant and beneficent place.

There remain significant questions yet to be answered as to how the Inquiry will progress. For instance, as Justice McClellan said yesterday, the Inquiry is not a prosecutorial body. It maybe that charges will be laid as a result of evidence given to the commission, but even so, it is likely that many perpetrators will escape justice. The long years that have elapsed since many of these crimes were committed makes criminal prosecution very difficult. This was the experience in Ireland, where many victims ultimately felt let down by a process that saw their tormentors walk free.

The recommendations that the commission finally makes — perhaps well into Tony Abbott's second term of government — will of course be critical. There have been many such inquiries and reports around the world, and we have yet to banish child sex abuse from the face of the earth. The commission's senior counsel Gail Furness said that “there are over 40 concluded government Inquiries which touch on the subject matter of this Royal Commission”, and that the commission would establish a research bureau to investigate what recommendations they had made, and whether they had been followed up on.

Other questions loom. The commission says that victims giving evidence will have access to community legal centres in order to help them prepare and deliver their testimony. But community legal centres are themselves notoriously underfunded, and it remains to be seen whether the extra funding available to them for this task through the Royal Commission will be enough to cover this onerous new responsibility.

These important issues shouldn't distract us from the big picture, however. And that is that an Australian government has, at long last, provided the resources and the legal powers necessary to tell a full account of this terrible chapter in Australian life. Even for those implacably opposed to Julia Gillard and her government – and there are many — this should be one decision of her government that all should welcome.

It's worth asking ourselves whether such an inquiry, with such wide-ranging powers, would have been commissioned by Tony Abbott. Given his personal history and close relationship with the Catholic church, there must be considerable doubt. Long after her last press conference, Julia Gillard can look back upon her decision to establish this Royal Commission with pride. It is long overdue. But it was Gillard, finally, who took responsibility.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.