Royal Commission says decades of institutional child sexual abuse a 'national tragedy'

THE Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has called for church and other institutional leaders to put aside their resentment and support necessary changes to address the “national tragedy” of child sexual abuse, during an emotional final sitting.

In a speech on Thursday in front of a packed gallery, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and shadow social services minister Jenny Macklin, commission chair Justice Peter McClellan said children were abused over decades because society failed.

“Some of our most important state instrumentalities have failed. Police often refused to believe children. Child protection agencies did not listen to children. Investigation processes were inadequate and criminal procedures were inappropriate. Our civil law placed impossible barriers on survivors bringing claims against individual abusers and institutions,” Justice McClellan said.

“In some cases the aggressive hand of the lawyer was engaged, ensuring that an appropriate and just response to a survivor was not possible.”

The final sitting in Sydney was held a day before the royal commission hands a final report and recommendations to Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove in Canberra, ending the landmark five-year inquiry.

Justice McClellan said the more than 8000 survivors who had given evidence in private sessions and the many more who gave evidence at more than 50 public hearings had had “a profound impact on the commissioners”.

While many churches had referred to institutional child sexual abuse as a problem in the past, Justice McClellan told the final sitting that “child sexual abuse in institutions continues today”.

“We heard in private sessions from children as young as seven years of age who told us they had been recently abused,” he said.

While many thousands of children had been sexually abused in institutions, it was important to remember that the number of children sexually abused in home settings “far exceeds” those sexually abused in institutions, he said.

“The sexual abuse of any child is intolerable in a civilised society. It is the responsibility of our entire community to acknowledge that children are being abused. We must each resolve that we should do what we can to protect them,” Justice McClellan said.

The royal commission final sitting included many people who had campaigned for a commission or had given evidence during public hearings.

They included Chrissie Foster, whose two daughters were sexually abused by a Catholic priest and whose husband Anthony died in June before the royal commission completed its work. They also included Hunter royal commission campaigners Bob O’Toole, Audrey Nash and Steve Smith, lawyer for many Hunter survivors John Ellis, advocate for children abused in homes, Leonie Sheedy and retired Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox.

Abuse survivor and former Newcastle Anglican Bishop Greg Thompson, whose apology to survivors in 2015 and vow to stop a culture of “mates looking after mates” within the church led to extraordinary scenes during a Newcastle Anglican diocese hearing in late 2016. 

Outside the commission Mr Shorten committed to supporting the royal commission recommendations, saying: “I don’t believe Australians will accept excuses from the parliament if we don’t fully embrace the royal commission, and that starts with a redress scheme, a proper national compensation scheme.”

The decades of institutional child sexual abuse were “a national shame, a national tragedy”.

“Now is not the time to use legal tactics or insurance company practises to somehow discredit or demolish the royal commission report. Australians of good conscience should get behind this royal commission report,” Mr Shorten said.

Mr O’Toole said the final sitting was a fitting end to a royal commission that validated the lives of many thousands of Australians, where survivors and political leaders sat together to acknowledge the work of the commission.

Audrey Nash, whose son Andrew took his own life at the age of 13 while a student at Marist Hamilton school, said the final sitting “brought it all back – all the pain and misery”.

“But it took five years with the commission and I finally found out what happened to my boy.”

Bishop Thompson said the final sitting was “an important affirmation”.

“Institutions have to continue to listen and be truthful about what they’ve had to confront and they have to have the courage, leaders have to have the courage, to stand up for survivors.”

He said he would “give it a 50:50 chance” that that would happen.

“It depends on who they appoint in the leadership in the future.”

Hunter survivors including Steve Smith will stand outside Government House in Canberra on Friday to wave the commissioners as they present the report and recommendations to Sir Peter Cosgrove.

At least some part of the report is expected to be released on Friday.  

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