Justice Peter McClellan says children paid price for social 'stability'

POLICE in Sydney and Melbourne had an “understanding..for many years” about protecting church figures accused of child sex allegations, royal commission chair Justice Peter McClellan will say in a speech in Melbourne on Tuesday.

The police “understanding” reflected a broader view that the community would suffer if its “pillars” were exposed as criminals, Justice McClellan will say based on evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse about police handling of institutional child sex allegations.

“Assumed stability of society was seen to be more important than the protection of the child or justice for children through the prosecution of offenders,” Justice McClellan will tell the Centre for Behavioural Science in a speech titled ‘Rights’ and ‘Wrongs’.

In one of his strongest and most personally revealing speeches, delivered one month before the royal commission presents its final report, Justice McClellan will recount how it is “impossible not to share the anger” many survivors feel because of the extent of the institutional betrayal.

“The failure to protect children has not been limited to institutions providing services to children. Some of our most important state instrumentalities have failed,” he will say.

The Royal Commission received evidence that at least in Sydney and Melbourne there was for many years an understanding that the police would protect members of the church who may have offended. It reflected a more general community attitude that it would be detrimental to the entire community if “its pillars” were exposed as criminals.

Justice Peter McClellan

“Police often refused to believe children. They refused to investigate their complaints of abuse. Many children who had attempted to escape abuse were returned to unsafe institutions by police. Child protection agencies did not listen to children. They did not act on their concerns, leaving them in situations of danger.

“Our criminal justice system has created many barriers to the successful prosecution of alleged perpetrators. Investigation processes were inadequate and criminal procedures were inappropriate. Our civil law placed impossible barriers on survivors bringing claims against individual abusers and institutions.”

After five years of public hearings across Australia, including hearings in Newcastle in 2016 that revealed shocking evidence of Catholic and Anglican responses to allegations involving more than 80 church representatives, Justice McClellan described institutional child sexual abuse as “a national tragedy, perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions”.

“It is not a case of a few ‘rotten apples’. Society’s major institutions have seriously failed. The problems have been so widespread, and the nature of the abuse so heinous, that it is difficult to comprehend,” he will say.

In a fiery speech he will warn that the sexual abuse of children is not just a problem from the past. “Child sexual abuse in institutions continues today. We were told of many cases of abuse that occurred in the last 10 to 15 years in a range of institutions, including schools, religious institutions, foster and kinship care, respite care, health and allied services, performing arts institutions, childcare centres and youth groups.

“We heard in private sessions from children as young as 11 years of age who had been recently abused. In some case studies into schools the abuse was so recent that the abused children are still attending school. We have learned that cultures and practices in some institutions allowed abuse to occur and continue.”

A failure to act on recommendations from the royal commission will “inevitably lead to the continuing sexual abuse of children”, he will say.

“Child sexual abuse in an institutional context has been and still will be committed in institutions which lack a healthy culture, where children have no rights, and adults are afforded protection by reason of their power, status or any theological practice.” 

More than 8000 Australian survivors who shared their experiences in private sessions, 1000 who provided written statements and thousands more who contacted the royal commission after its establishment in November, 2012 “deserve our nation’s thanks”, Justice McClellan will say.

The child abuse royal commission was given a task “of a breadth and complexity faced by few royal commissions”.

The history of both Maralinga and child abuse in Australia make plain that ‘rights’ matter. Fundamental rights once identified and adopted by a community cannot be easily cast aside.

Justice Peter McClellan

“No doubt many Australians were aware of some of the problems. ‘Altar boy’ stories were around when I was a schoolboy in the 1950s and 1960s. I knew that there were ‘migrant children’ in homes in Australia but had no idea they may have been the source of abuse,” he will say.

Justice McClellan will speak about his work on another significant Australian royal commission, into British nuclear tests in the 1950s, and how the rights of Indigenous people were extinguished in the same way the rights of Indigenous children were extinguished as part of the stolen generations, and in children’s homes.

“The history of both Maralinga and child abuse in Australia make plain that ‘rights’ matter. Fundamental rights once identified and adopted by a community cannot be easily cast aside,” he will say.

“We cannot expound the virtues of a free and just society and express them through a statement of accepted ‘rights’ if we do not endeavour to ensure that the actions of government and our many institutions are consistent with those ‘rights’,”.

After five years of evidence and more than 50 public hearings involving churches, government departments, schools, sporting clubs and other institutions, Justice McClellan said it was difficult to measure the prevalence of child sexual abuse, but abuse within family settings was much higher than institutional abuse. It is believed as many as 60 per cent of victims never disclose their abuse.

Research suggests victims of child sexual abuse are 18 times more likely than people in the general population to die as a result of self-harm, and almost 50 times more likely to die as a result of accidental drug overdose, he will say.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge, who played a key role in the campaign for a royal commission, said Justice McClellan’s comments on evidence of police protecting church child sex offenders was “what victims, advocates and even a small core of brave police have been saying for decades”.

“It’s too late for his career, but it’s strong vindication of the stand (Hunter chief inspector) Peter Fox took when he spoke out in 2012,” Mr Shoebridge said.

“What the royal commission has revealed is how dangerous it is when people in positions of power, and particularly members of parliament, devote their attention to protecting authority figures rather than members of the public they’re supposed to serve.”