The government has reacted to growing pressure for a royal commission into child abuse by the Catholic Church by announcing a federal royal commission into institutional child abuse, with terms of reference to be developed in coming weeks by the Attorney-General and Families Minister Brendan O’Connor working in consultation with the states.

The inquiry will not focus on Catholic or religious institutions only but on all institutional child abuse, by religious and non-religious groups alike. The Prime Minister said the focus would primarily be on child sexual abuse. The head of the royal commission is yet to be decided.

Pressure steadily built over the weekend in the face of new claims of sexual abuse and its systemic cover-up by sections of the Catholic Church, with Nick Xenophon, Tony Windsor and the Greens all pushing for a royal commission and ALP backbencher Joel Fitzgibbon announcing his support this afternoon. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser joined the calls on the weekend.

And in a significant development this afternoon, Tony Abbott also bowed to pressure and said the Coalition would support a major inquiry if it wasn’t limited to the Catholic Church.

It had become increasingly clear in recent weeks that the extent of the cover-up of child abuse and protection of pedophiles within the Catholic Church up until a few years ago was so great that normal mechanisms of investigation and prosecution were failing to sufficiently deal with what appeared to be culture of facilitation and cover-up. In announcing the royal commission, the Prime Minister repeatedly noted that the inquiry would also address adults who failed to take appropriate action to deal with abuse.

The nature of the commission announced by the Prime Minister avoids the central political problem of calls for a royal commission into the Catholic Church, of appearing to focus on a single institution and denomination, which informed Tony Abbott’s acceptance of the need for some form of inquiry.

Pending the terms of reference, the royal commission will be similar to the wide-ranging, decade-long Irish commission from 1999-2009, although that inquiry had a broader remit in relation to abuse, and a more deeply-embedded culture of institutional abuse to investigate. The Prime Minister said she expects that the royal commission will take considerable time, and she’s likely to be proven to be correct.

The government has moved with surprising speed to resolve the issue after last week there appeared to be a bipartisan consensus that a royal commission was unnecessary, after Bill Shorten and Joe Hockey both rejected the idea. Ms Gillard indicated that recent revelations and the NSW government’s decision to establish an inquiry into child abuse in the Hunter region had been important in changing the government’s mind.

The text of the Prime Minister’s announcement follows:


Today I have announced that I will be recommending to the Governor-General the establishment of a Royal Commission into institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia.

The allegations that have come to light recently about child sexual abuse have been heartbreaking.

These are insidious, evil acts to which no child should be subject.

The individuals concerned deserve the most thorough of investigations into the wrongs that have been committed against them.

They deserve to have their voices heard and their claims investigated.

I believe a Royal Commission is the best way to do this.

The proposed terms of reference and proposed Commissioner will be submitted to the Governor‑General in due course, pursuant to the Royal Commissions Act 1902.

I will speak with relevant Premiers and Chief Ministers in coming days to discuss how the Royal Commission should relate to any current inquiries into similar matters currently proposed or underway in their jurisdictions. Discussions will also take place with victims’ groups, religious leaders, and community organisations.

The Attorney-General and the Minister for Families will co-ordinate this work on behalf of the Government in coming weeks.

Further announcements, including the proposed Commissioner and detailed terms of reference, will be made in coming weeks.

I commend the victims involved for having the courage to speak out.

I believe we must do everything we can to make sure that what has happened in the past is never allowed to happen again.