THE push for a royal commission into the Catholic Church’s handling of child sex abuse took a significant step forward yesterday with the NSW shadow cabinet saying it would back a special commission of inquiry into the issue.
But it wants any inquiry to go beyond the realms of the Catholic Church, and has stopped short of calling on the government to immediately instigate an inquiry.
It came on the day when the Greens tabled a notice of motion for the urgent establishment of a royal commission into child sexual abuse noting ‘‘internal investigations by churches and other
organisations have proven wholly inadequate in achieving justice for victims of child sexual assault’’.
It also follows recent calls in the Newcastle Herald for a royal commission, including from child sexual abuse victims of clergy and their families.
A Labor spokeswoman said the shadow cabinet had agreed on its position yesterday.
‘‘If the O’Farrell government moves to establish a special commission of inquiry into child sexual abuse, the NSW Labor opposition will support it,’’ she said.
‘‘An inquiry that focuses solely on the Catholic Church is not the best way forward.
‘‘It would be doing victims and children at risk a disservice if any inquiry focused our attention on only one organisation.
‘‘Any such inquiry should examine how child sexual abuse is dealt with and reported, no matter where it occurs.’’
Opposition Leader John Robertson said the issue ‘‘is a scourge on our society and should be above politics’’.
‘‘Any inquiry should look at how to better encourage victims and witnesses to come forward, whether investigation processes are satisfactory and how to better support victims,’’ he said. ‘‘Sadly, child sexual abuse continues to go under-reported, with far-reaching consequences.’’
Greens MP David Shoebridge said Labor’s stance was welcome, but any special commission of inquiry must be given the powers of a royal commission to compel witnesses and order the production of documents and entail public hearings.
‘‘This is a positive step. We now see the Premier [Barry O’Farrell] effectively isolated in opposing a public inquiry into child sexual abuse,’’ he said.
But he said Labor ‘‘should come out and openly call for an inquiry not passively hide behind the government’s inaction’’.
The government has said it is closely watching a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into abuse and will await its findings and recommendations, to consider their potential benefit to NSW.
The Victorian parliamentary inquiry, announced in April, is controversial because victims and advocates wanted a royal commission or at least an independent judicial inquiry.
HOW ROYAL COMMISSIONS WORK
ROYAL commissions in NSW are initiated by executive government, not by parliament, and are formally established by the NSW Governor on the advice of the government.
A decision about holding a royal commission into the Catholic church’s handling of child sex abuse cases is consequently reserved for Premier Barry O’Farrell and his cabinet.
NSW royal commissions in the past, including the Wood Royal Commission into the police service in the 1990s, the Chelmsford Royal Commission from 1988-1990 into deaths at a Sydney psychiatric hospital, and the Woodward Royal Commission into drug trafficking, followed community outrage and intense media scrutiny.
One of Australia’s leading academics on royal commissions, Professor Scott Prasser of the Australian Catholic University, said royal commissions were not judicial inquiries, despite often being chaired by retired judges.
They were ‘‘circuit breakers’’ needed when there were serious allegations raised in public, and concerns that existing institutions were unable to adequately deal with the allegations.
‘‘They seek the truth,’’ Professor Prasser said.