Gillard talks about child sex abuse

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard has revealed the  Newcastle Herald’s ‘‘Shine the Light’’ campaign ‘‘got into my head’’, in an exclusive interview about Australia’s historic royal commission into child sexual abuse.

‘‘I think it got into my head, and got into my language because of the campaign,’’ Ms Gillard said on Thursday about her use of the phrase ‘‘shine a light’’ during a media conference on January 11 to announce the six royal commissioners.

The Herald launched its ‘‘Shine the Light’’ campaign for a royal commission on August 4 last year after the suicide of Belmont North child sex victim John Pirona in July.

In announcing the commission, Ms Gillard answered a question by saying: ‘‘We have all got an obligation to shine a light on what’s happened in the past’’.

Ms Gillard agreed to an interview this week because of the Hunter region’s lead role in campaigning for a royal commission on behalf of victims.

It followed five years of the Herald  documenting Catholic Church knowledge of child sex crimes, and Hunter police leading the country’s biggest investigations of Catholic clergy, which helped victims break the silence.

Ms Gillard said the royal commission would be  ‘‘nation-changing’’. 

‘‘When we look back, one of the things that will be most important, and most remembered in this part of the nation’s history, will be the royal commission into child abuse,’’ she said.

Ms Gillard said the decision to hold a national royal commission, when even many victims’ groups accepted that arguments for state-based commissions were much stronger, was reached after ‘‘the evidence piled up about the systemic nature’’ of child sex abuse.

‘‘The number of people who’d averted their eyes was highly disturbing to me,’’ she said.

Between August 9, when Ms Gillard visited Newcastle and told the Herald her government had no plans for a royal commission, and November 12 when she announced one, the ‘‘balance tipped’’, she said.

August 9 was also the day John Pirona was buried.

Central to that tipping point being reached was evidence that the Catholic church moved priests interstate and ‘‘to other parts of the world’’, she said.

The case of Hunter paedophile priest Denis McAlinden, who was sent to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, but also went to the Philippines and England despite church knowledge of his offending over four decades, was the tipping point that led the NSW Government to announce a commission of inquiry.

It was also a factor in the tipping of the balance in favour of a federal royal commission three days later, after increasingly intense media focus on alleged church cover-ups.

The period included the conclusion of Newcastle police Strike Force Lantle’s investigation into church knowledge of McAlinden, and the roles of three senior Australian Catholic clergy in a secret 1995 attempt to remove him from the priesthood with ‘‘his good name protected’’.

It also included international coverage of Charlestown police Strike Force Georgiana’s charging of priest Tom Brennan with Australia’s first counts of concealing the child sex crimes of another priest.

‘‘For some time I felt that maybe more localised inquiries, state-based, would be the way to get the balance right,’’ Ms Gillard said.

‘‘I knew a federal royal commission would be a huge thing. I was trying at every stage to balance what would be the best for the victims; what is the thing that most relieves their trauma?

‘‘How can we allow people to tell their stories and be believed without making people relive their trauma? You should only do that for a really good purpose.

‘‘As the evidence piled up it just seemed to me the balance for a federal inquiry became apparent. The scale of it was becoming more and more apparent for me.’’

The movement of priests after allegations of child sexual assault was the tipping point.

‘‘People weren’t just moved to the next town up the road. They were moved interstate and in some cases, to other parts of the world. That’s where the balance was reached for a federal royal commission.’’

Ms Gillard said she had not been sexually abused as a child, but as a parliamentarian had listened to victims’ stories.

‘‘I don’t have a personal experience. I didn’t have anything happen to me or a family member or friend,’’ she said.

‘‘But I do look back on my school days now and wonder about people I knew who ended up having problems in later life; whether there was sexual abuse. You look at things with an adult’s eyes and wonder, did something happen to them?’’

 Ms Gillard said the community needed to be prepared for a royal commission that would be ‘‘very painful for people, with lots of tears and lots of trauma’’.

‘‘I think it will be difficult. There will be lots of days of real pain in it.’’

But ‘‘it is also very necessary’’, she said.

‘‘I think this will be a nation-changing event. I really do.’’  

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