AFTER five years of inquiry, Justice Peter McClellan has delivered his final sitting address at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – describing the extent of abuse as a national tragedy, and warning that children are still being sexually assaulted.
“For many sexual abuse is a trauma they can never escape, it can affect every aspect of their lives,” Justice McClellan said in a wide-ranging speech in which he thanked survivors as “remarkable people” who shared their stories and “deserve our nation’s thanks”.
He revealed the Royal Commission was aware that child sexual abuse in institutions was not just historic, but occurred today.
“We were told of many cases of abuse that occurred in the last 10 to 15 years, in a range of institutions including schools, religious institutions, foster and kinship care, respite care, health and allied services, performing arts institutions, child care centres and youth groups,” Justice McClellan said.
“We heard in private sessions from children as young as seven years of age, who told us they had been recently abused.”
During the $500 million inquiry, the largest Royal Commission held in Australia, more than 8000 people spoke to commissioners in private sessions, more than 1300 written accounts were received from survivors and more than 2500 allegations reported to police.
So far 230 prosecutions have started, although some alleged perpetrators have since died.
Justice McClellan said 4000 individual institutions from across the country had been reported to the commission as places where abuse occurred.
“For victims and survivors telling their stories has required great courage and great determination. Most are stories of personal trauma and many are of personal tragedy,” he said.
“It has been impossible not to share the anger many survivors have felt when they tell us of their betrayal by people they believe they were entitled to trust.
“For many survivors talking about past events required them to revisit traumatic experiences that profoundly harmed them.
“Many spoke of having their innocence stolen, their childhood lost their education and prospective career taken from them and their personal relationships damaged for the rest of their lives.”
Justice McClellan said the greatest number of alleged perpetrators and abused children in church-managed facilities “that we were aware of” occurred in Catholic institutions.
“In many religious institutions in particular but not only the Catholic Church, the power afforded to people in religious ministry and the misplaced trust of parents combined with aspects of the culture, practices and attitudes within the institutions to create risks for children,” he said.
“Alleged perpetrators were often allowed to have access to children even when religious leaders knew they posed a danger.
“Alleged perpetrators were often transferred to another location where they had access to children but were never reported to police.”
Outside the Royal Commission, abuse survivors, many who gave evidence, demanded that a national redress scheme for compensation must be an immediate priority, after the final commission report is handed to the Governor General and to parliament.
Survivor Sandra Beaton called on the government to withdraw a part of the planned redress scheme that would exclude victims who’d been to prison from receiving compensation.
“Why did they go to jail in the first place? Because of the treatment that they had as children. It has a big bearing on your adult life,” Ms Beaton, who was placed in care in New South Wales, said.
“Children must be believed, they must be listened to, and must not be silenced. Because what happened to us we could not speak up for ourselves.”
Another survivor, Helen Dawson, said Australia’s political leaders had been asked for bi-partisan support to ensure the commission recommendations were implemented.
“There are survivors from every single electorate in Australia who have come to the royal commission. Their interests must be properly supported … for every child to have a safe and happy childhood,” she said.
A book containing 1000 personal messages written by survivors was handed to the National Library of Australia. The book “Message to Australia” is now on display at the library and in all state and territory libraries.
Senior Counsel Assisting the Royal Commission Gail Furness described the volume as “too heavy to lift”.
The commission has already made a range of recommendations including to make it easier to prosecute historical sexual abuse and to streamline compensation.
The final Royal Commission report will be delivered to Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove tomorrow.