In the mid 1990’s the Wood Royal Commission undertook the first public investigation of child sexual abuse in NSW. At the time, survivors of child sexual abuse came forward and tried to tell their stories. They spoke of child sexual abuse being committed by powerful people who had the protection of powerful institutions.
They were ignored. The institutions didn’t change. The abuse continued. Society, it seemed, just couldn’t accept the scale of the betrayal that is implicit in child sexual abuse.
When I entered Parliament in 2010 nothing had changed. The Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Salvation Army, the YMCA and other non-government institutions were considered above politics. They did good. They had power. They had best be left alone was the political understanding.
In the face of these institutions stood many brave, and sometimes broken, survivors of abuse. They started coming to see me. At first they came one at a time. Often they came alone. Sometimes they were helped by a lawyer or advocate. They all were saying the same thing. Why is it that no one is listening? What will it take to break down the wall of silence? How can we hold the powerful to account?
Everyone knew the history. This is why I found myself pretty much alone in the NSW Parliament when I spoke up about child sexual abuse. The NSW Parliament worked in an embarrassing silence that was created by fear of the powerful institutions that were being challenged.
By 2012 most survivors thought they knew what was needed. So too did Joanne McCarthy at the Newcastle Herald. What was needed was a Royal Commission. When the Newcastle Herald and my office jointly hosted a public meeting in Newcastle in September 2012 we openly asked the question: “Do we need a Royal Commission into child abuse in the Catholic Church and other institutions?”
Hundreds of survivors and supporters came to the meeting. Journalist and author Peter FitzSimons spoke. But one contribution really changed the debate. Detective Inspector Peter Fox who had investigated child abuse in the Hunter region for years stood up, walked to the podium and declared: “Too bloody right we need a Royal Commission” he said.
Within two months the Royal Commission was started. In November 2012 Prime Minister Julia Gillard did what many thought impossible and established a Royal Commission with Justice Peter McClellan as its chair.
For survivors, and the institutions who failed them, the world has been turned upside down. Where once they were ignored, Justice McClellan, and the royal commission team have listened, understood and acted. The Catholic Church, the YMCA, Salvation Army, the Anglican Church and so many others have been brought to account. They were forced to see, often in the white light of the public gaze, how appallingly they failed children in their care.
The persistence, intelligence and dignity of the Royal Commission has been its most remarkable achievement. In the face of often chilling, heart-wrenching evidence, survivors have been treated with respect, compassion and been lifted up.
More than 8000 survivors told their story, with 2500 cases referred to police and 250 prosecutions already afoot. Some 4000 institutions were referred to the royal commission as places where abuse occurred, and the Catholic Church had the highest number of abusers of any institution.
But it’s not the statistics, as appalling as they are, that has made the case for change. It is the way the Royal Commission has given voice to victims and let their stories of tragedy and bravery come through.
With an unflinching thoroughness the Royal Commission has exposed the structural failures that leave children at risk. It has exposed the internal failings and the gaping holes in the civil law. It has identified how the criminal justice system is stacked against child victims and, perhaps most importantly of all, it has convinced the Australian public of the need to fix this.
Every government in the country has received the Royal Commission’s final recommendations. Because of the remarkable work of the Royal Commission the Australian public is on the side of the victims. The public now expects Parliaments to act and make the changes needed to keep children safe and deliver respectful compensation for survivors.
This is a test of how much has changed inside Parliaments since the Wood Royal Commission. Have enough MP’s learned the lessons of the past and will they now put the interests of children ahead of the institutions that have betrayed them? This, after all, is our job.