ON Monday the Prime Minister announced that a royal commission would be conducted on the sexual abuse of children by churches and other agencies having care of children.
Although the bulk of the information that has been published about clerical sexual abuse in recent years, much of it by the Newcastle Herald, has focused on the Catholic Church, it makes sense to widen the inquiry to cover all religious denominations and institutions as well as other government and non-government agencies that carry responsibility for the care of children.
There is no doubt that sexual abuse of young children has been widespread and, although the Catholic Church may top the list, it would be a denial of justice to the victims of sexual abuse by those in positions of power over children in other organisations if the scope of the royal commission was too limited.
Certainly, from time to time we hear or read reports of children being subjected to sexual and physical abuse in other religious settings or in institutions whose role is to care for children and it is important that those victims be heard and the perpetrators exposed.
The downside of having a wide-ranging royal commission is that it will be a huge undertaking and unless properly resourced and managed may drag on for years and years.
This in itself would impose further trauma on victims of child sexual abuse and their families.
To provide a comparison: the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established by the Hawke government in 1987.
Initially Justice James Muirhead was appointed as sole Commissioner, however it soon became apparent that the workload would be too much for one person.
Royal commissioners were appointed in the States, nonetheless it still took almost four years for the Commonwealth and State royal commissioners to investigate the 99 deaths and publish their reports.
And it is important to note that those ninety-nine deaths were those that had occurred since 1 January 1980, in other words, only within the decade of the 1980s.
It is likely that the royal commission into child sexual abuse will take evidence of alleged offences dating back several decades, as it is abundantly clear that only now are victims of abuse that they suffered many, many years ago finding the courage to speak out.
If the royal commission denies them the opportuity to be heard, simply because it does not have the resources to do so, it will be an even greater denial of justice.
So, the job is not over yet.
Yes, the Prime Minister has announced a Commonwealth royal commission.
It is now imperative that the States support the Prime Minister’s call by issuing their own letters patent, as they did in respect to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and providing all the necessary resources, including a commissioner and support personnel – investigators, researchers, advisors, administrative support – to ensure that the grotesque epidemic of sexual abuse of children is investigated thoroughly and that those responsible are exposed.
And it is imperative that those who have condoned, facilitated and tacitly encouraged the sexual abuse of children, perhaps including those who now occupy high positions in their church or institution, are exposed and brought to account.
Edmund Burke, the British statesman, is credited with
saying: “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.”
On the face of it, our church leaders are good men, however by all accounts some church leaders have gone way beyond simply doing nothing and have deliberately concealed the crimes of their fellow priests.
There is little doubt that there are also those who hold, or who have held, positions of authority in other religious institutions or in government or non-government agencies who have played significant roles in covering up the sexual abuse of children in their organisation’s care.
These people must be brought to account.
It is the responsibility of all Australian governments, not just Julia Gillard’s Federal government, to ensure that this is what happens. Premier O’Farrell has, in the last few days, declared his commitment to protecting children from sexual abuse, however you could be forgiven for questioning that commitment when he announces a very limited inquiry into allegations by a police officer of church obstruction of police investigations in the Hunter region.
Premier O’Farrell now has the opportunity to demonstrate the true commitment of his government by signing up with the Commonwealth for a wide-ranging royal commission.
It is up to the Newcastle Herald and their media colleagues, the victims support groups and all those who believe in justice for the victims of the abhorrent crimes of sexual abuse of children to continue to raise their voices until there is commitment to make this a truly national royal commission, with the authority – and the resources – to bring about real change through exposure and shaming of those responsible for these crimes.
John Ure is a retired NSW Police Assistant Commissioner who oversaw the charging of one paedophile priest, regretted the failure to charge the priest who hid those crimes, and was involved with three NSW royal commissions.