CHURCH leaders and other advoc-ates for survivors of institutional abuse in Australia have welcomed Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of a wide-ranging royal commission into institutional child sexual abuse.
The inquiry will investigate child abuse in all religions, schools, state care and non-profit organisations such as sporting groups and Scouts, and how authorities have responded.
Among those supporting the Government’s decision have been Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), Catholic Religious Australia (CRA), National Professional Standards Committee executive officer Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Father Tim Brennan and Bravehearts founder and executive director Hetty Johnston.
Archbishop Coleridge said a royal commission “will provide no quick fix or magical solution in an area as complex and tormented as the sexual abuse of minors … but it is our best chance to clear the air at a time when that is very much needed”.
He said “in this country at least, the Catholic Church has done a great deal in the last twenty years to put in place procedures which seek to ensure justice for all”.
“They are not perfect and are therefore a work in progress,” he said.
The ACBC, in a statement from its president Archbishop Denis Hart and the conference’s permanent committee, said the commission addressed “a serious issue not just for the Catholic Church but also for the whole community”.
“As Catholic bishops and as individuals we share the feelings of horror and outrage which all decent people feel when they read the reports of sexual abuse and allegations of cover-ups,” the statement said.
“We have taken decisive steps in the past 20 years to make child safety a priority and to help victims of abuse.
“This includes working closely with police.
“While there were significant problems concerning some dioceses and some religious orders, talk of a systemic problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is ill-founded and inconsistent with the facts.”
CRA president Sisters of Charity Sister Annette Cunliffe said the organisation joined the ACBC “in welcoming the Prime Minister’s announcement of her intention to establish a royal commission into institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia”.
“Sadly this horrific crime is too common in our society,” Sr Cunliffe said.
“We welcome any course of action that contributes to healing for victims and to just and effective treatment of those who have committed crimes against children and vulnerable adults.
“A heightened level of awareness is, in itself, a means of prevention and has the potential to reach beyond institutions and change a culture of silence about such matters.”
The Church’s National Professional Standards Committee executive officer Fr Tim Brennan said the Government’s decision “indicated as a nation we are ready to face our dark side”.
“The calling of a royal commission is a triumph for those people who have waited for years to be heard,” he said.
Fr Brennan also agreed public awareness had been growing for a while about institutional abuse especially since Federal Government apologies to the Stolen Generation and impoverished British children shipped to Australia in the ’50s and ’60s.
“In a sense these have been steps on the way to the latest step, the calling of a royal commission,” he said.
Fr Brennan said such an inquiry “would have the potential to lead to better legislation and public policy”.
“One of the shortcomings in the current situation is the failure for these matters to be addressed in a nationally coherent way,” he said.
Bravehearts founder and executive director Hetty Johnston was among people from organisations outside the Church to praise the Government’s decision.
“It’s been a decade in the making and it has the support of both major parties, the Greens and the independents,” she said.
“It just means we have got a parliament with people in it who want to see kids protected. That makes me feel very happy and very proud.”
But Ms Johnston also warned some institutions may try to destroy evidence.
“I just hope they are not shredding documents as we speak,” she said.
Earlier this year, Ms Johnston and Fr Brennan told The Catholic Leader they were not in favour of a national royal commission focused solely on allegations of sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church.
Fr Brennan said such calls were “a bit simplistic”.
Ms Johnston said it was “shallow indeed to concentrate on just one organisation – at the end of the day it’s to do with kids being sexually assaulted and the cover-ups which occur”.
Ms Gillard’s announcement on Monday came after growing social and political outrage at the latest series of revelations of paedophilia in society.
Labor backbenchers had earlier joined the Greens and independents in demanding a national inquiry.
On November 9, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced an inquiry into alleged child sex abuse by Catholic priests in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney.
A senior police investigator also made allegations on a national TV program last weekend that the Church had covered up sexual abuse of children in the Hunter Valley.
A separate public inquiry in Victoria is investigating allegations of systemic child abuse. The Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry was established in July.
Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott last week said the Coalition would support a Government-backed royal commission into child sexual abuse, providing it inquired beyond the Catholic Church.
In backing the royal commission, Cardinal George Pell of Sydney said “public opinion remains unconvinced the Catholic Church has dealt adequately with sexual abuse”.
“Ongoing and at times one-sided media coverage has deepened this uncertainty,” he said. “This is one of the reasons for my support.”
Archbishop Coleridge said he hoped that, “beyond establishing the facts, the commission will help to bring justice and healing to those who have been abused and to their families”.
“Is abuse of the young still happening? I don’t know. It is possible,” the Archbishop said. “All I can say with certainty is that we now know a lot more about the causes and effects of abuse, and are much more determined in working to eradicate it.
“That’s why we will work as co-operatively as we can with the royal commission.”