The Royal Commission's Work To Date


From its first public session on 3 April, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse received on average 22 calls a day from alleged victims. Of those, the commissioners estimate 10 will need a private session, attended by two commissioners, counsellors and other support staff, in order to tell their story. The sessions run for up to 90 minutes.

The commissioners, on the advice of psychiatrists, are prohibited from hearing more than four accounts a day or sitting for five consecutive days in a week for the sake of their own mental health. The victims need support too: many break down while telling their stories or need help merely to organise their accounts coherently, owing to the trauma they suffered as children.

By 13 September the commission had taken 4301 calls from victims, heard 398 accounts in private sessions, had another 449 waiting to be heard, and a further 1178 waiting to be assessed for whether a private session would be appropriate.

These figures were cited in opening remarks by Justice Peter McClellan, during the public hearing for case study one in September. This morning, in his opening remarks for the second case study, McClellan said the number of calls had increased to 40 a day, and that the commission had also received 542 written accounts from victims.

The sheer demand indicated by the numbers should put the lie to those political and religious critics of Julia Gillard's courageous decision to convene the commission. To his credit, Tony Abbott was not one of them.

In his remarks on 16 September, McClellan said that the scope of the commission became apparent once they began making arrangements to hear the private sessions. The commissioners' interim report is due in June next year, but he conceded that:

“It is too early in the commission's work to be able to predict how long may be required for us to complete the task given to us by government. However, as our work moves forward, the comments made by various persons, when the Royal Commission was announced, about the large size of the commission's task seem accurate.”

He also acknowledged the magnitude of the human task before the commissioners, and the impact the process had already had on his own life:

”In my role as a judge, I have been called upon to review many of the sentences imposed upon people convicted of the sexual abuse of children, but I readily acknowledge that until I began my work with the commission I did not adequately appreciate the devastating and long-lasting effect which sexual abuse, however inflicted, can have on an individual's life.”

I'll be reporting from the second public hearing as it unfolds over the next few days. But it's worth revisiting the work of the commission so far.

The commission is organised into three parallel processes. Perhaps most important are the private sessions already mentioned. The commissioners have been holding private sessions in Sydney at their CBD headquarters, and have travelled to abuse hotspots to hear victims closer to their homes. When the commission was convened, the Royal Commission Act had to be amended by Federal Parliament to allow these private sessions to occur. Information from these private hearings cannot be used as evidence in, for example, a criminal trial held after the commission — but if de-identified it can be included in the report.

The commissioners have indicated they will hold four public hearings this year. Resources are obviously limited, so the commissioners are being strategic. McClellan explained the approach in his 16 September remarks:

"To make the best use of our resources, we have determined to devote public hearings to systemic issues and policy matters. However, where we find evidence of a significant cluster of abused individuals, we may also conduct a public hearing into that institution."

This morning McClellan made clear that the commission has not been tasked to investigate every single abusive act of a person at an institution, but to investigate systemic failures in particular institutions, which would be selected with “great care”.

The first public hearing, for case study one, was held in September, and examined a range of personal, systemic and policy issues surrounding the case of Steven Larkins, a Scout leader and former general manager of Hunter Aboriginal Children's Services in NSW. Larkins was convicted in 2012 of several offences, including aggravated indecent assault of two children, aged 11 and 12, child pornography possession and "dishonesty offences perpetrated to avoid detection" — which in one instance included the fabrication of a working with children check.

Today's session investigates the YMCA in NSW, the third will deal with abuse at the North Coast Children’s Home in Grafton, and the final session, held in December, will examine Towards Healing — the much-maligned Catholic Church compensation system. Gail Furness SC, one of the counsel assisting the commission, said during the Larkins session that public hearings in 2014 will include an orphanage, "one or more institutions within the Catholic Church and within the Salvation army".

The third process, the Issues Papers, dovetails with the public hearings in targeting and seeking submissions from relevant stakeholders on issues of importance. Submissions have already been received on the issue of working with children checks, which obviously complements the first public hearing into Larkins' fraud. Several thoughtful submissions were received on a range of topics, including the feasibility of extending the scheme nationally.

Victims' groups Bravehearts and Broken Rites both tendered their opinion, and the commission also received an excellent submission from the South Australian Commissioner For Victims' Rights which gave a careful treatment of the relevant human rights, legal, privacy and academic views, and called for funding for a broad-based public scholarly review of the system.

Submissions have also been received on Towards Healing, which New Matilda will look at closer to the date of the public hearing on that topic. Of particular import is the Catholic Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council's lengthy submission. Francis Sullivan, the council's CEO, explained the intention behind the submission at the ABC's Religion and Ethics website this month. He tactfully indicated that a swathe of reform proposals included in his submission are an attempt to persuade a recalcitrant Church to get out in front of the process:

"These major reforms are currently being developed by the Truth, Justice and Healing Council and will be presented to the Church leadership in the early part of next year. They are being developed mindful of recommendations that might be made by the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry and the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, as well as this Royal Commission … on these plans, and that doesn't even include the monumental job of explaining to the 200 or so different Church leaders around the country that these reforms are the way of the future for the Catholic Church in Australia."

How does the Vatican operate in Australia? How does it interact with the vast "submerged state" of Catholic education and welfare? What kind of Church will survive the child abuse inquiry? Over the following months New Matilda will be investigating the application of Catholic power in Australia, the various mechanisms set up by the Church to attempt to deal with the scourge of child abuse, and the work of the Royal Commission.

Tips can be sent to adam [dot]brereton [at]newmatilda [dot]com. Confidentiality and sensitivity guaranteed.

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.