Nov 13, 2012

Royal commission on child abuse will be transformative

The royal commission into institutional child abuse is likely to be a transformative event for Australia, and one beyond the control of the politicians who set it up.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

The royal commission into institutional child sexual abuse, and those who failed to respond to it, announced by the Prime Minister yesterday will run well beyond the next election; indeed, may well run beyond the election beyond that. A similar inquiry in Ireland, albeit with a wider remit to examine all forms of child abuse within Irish institutions, took 10 years. One of the outcomes is likely to be a steady drip of horrific stories and nightmarish recollections of people whose childhoods, indeed entire lives, were ruined by abuse and by the refusal of those in authority to either prevent it or acknowledge their suffering. By affording a sympathetic environment for survivors who want to tell their stories, a royal commission will per se bring a measure of comfort regardless of its eventual report. Abuse survivors have been calling for a royal commission for a decade or more, so it has hardly arrived in a rush, but the government moved with unexpected speed given senior members were dismissing a royal commission late last week. Once Tony Abbott, who was dismissive even of the need for an apology for Catholic child sex abuse in 2008, admitted the desirability of an inquiry that did not target his church alone, there was no further political hurdle to the government taking action. Even the Catholic hierarchy had backflipped and were welcoming the inquiry by the time it was announced. There will be some holdouts and deadenders, of course. One conservative commentator is already talking about a "witch-hunt". But the inquiry is likely to be a transformative event. The Irish inquiry permanently altered, and diminished, the role the Catholic Church plays in Irish society. Anyone who has witnessed the progress of major Australian royal commissions, especially those at a state level, will also be aware that it is impossible to predict the course of the inquiry before it starts, which is one of the reasons major parties are reluctant to initiate them. Terms of reference are the only way politicians can control them; once they are up and running, it is impossible to rein them in. Those of us who expected major party politicians to be dragged slowly to such a decision, if they ever reached it, must admit to being wrong: recent revelations and the sense that the full story would never be exposed without a significant change of approach have clearly motivated MPs on all sides to look beyond their traditional reluctance to resort to royal commissions. One calculation would have been that this issue is not going anywhere: there will be a steady stream of further revelations regardless of whether there was a royal commission, each one begging the question of why a national approach wasn't being taken. Better to embrace a royal commission now than look as if they'd been dragged unwillingly to one in a month's time, or next year. For once both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition looked leader-like on an issue that needed it. This minority government and the Parliament that produced it may never be well-regarded by voters, but its legacy for hundreds of thousands of Australians affected by child abuse is likely to be a positive one.

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13 thoughts on “Royal commission on child abuse will be transformative

  1. Mike Flanagan

    Sorry Bernard, to many of us it is not a political issue, but the exposure of a cancer that has been lingering in closeted communities where the standards of nurturing and protectiion of our young and developing community members has been abused.
    Both Aggott and the PM should be congratulated for acting, the shame we must endure is the decadel tardiness to act.


    My worry is that the terms of this Royal Commission will be so wide that there will be no real outcome, and none of the perpetrators will end up with a criminal conviction. But of course the Politician will be able to declare that they can’t discuss it because they don’t want to compromise the Royal Commission. Perhaps my judgement is blurred because I don’t trust politicians

  3. John Bennetts

    “[H]undreds of thousands”?

    I hope that this is an exaggeration.

  4. Venise Alstergren

    JRAPQQ: Your mistrust of politicians, whilst entirely admirable, should in no way allow you to trust the so-called men of God. Already Father Brennan-Lateline ABC last night-has stated he would rather go to jail than allow what’s said in the confessional, by a perpetrator, to be disseminated.

    And in Victoria the Premier, Ted Baillieu, has already capitulated to the Catholic church by exempting it from mandatory reporting.

  5. Carl Peterson

    While the Prime Minister deserves praise for her courageous decision on the child sex abuse scandal, the unfortunate reality is that this RC will lead to nothing. The Catholic Church is just too powerful, too wealthy and supported by too many vested interests. They have a history or perpetrating the most horrific crimes for seventeen centuries, they always got away with it and they will continue to do so. It’s a shame because that is another false expectation for the victims and this will only add to their suffering.
    The systematic abuse and rape of the most vulnerable in our society is an institutional problem. Even if a very small proportion of these crimes were committed by members of any other institution the heads and leaders of that institution would be standing before the courts now, they would be jailed for a very long time and the institution would collapse. Not so with the Church. There is no way that the cardinals and the bishops, who as the leaders and managers are the real culprits and ultimately responsible for these monstrosities, will ever be brought to justice. And what about the Pope, does anybody think that the Pope, as the global CEO of this organization, will ever respond for these crimes and systematic cover ups?
    George Pell is already signalling what are his expectations; the Church will be cleared of any wrong doing and vindicated as a victim of what he called “selective reporting”. That is exactly what will happen, ten years from now or even more. The politicians, the police, the journalists will come and go, but the Catholic Church will stay. They will achieve this result with yet more cover ups, character assassination, harassment and massive payouts. And also because they still control around 20% of the voting population. This is just a walk in the park for an organization that tortured and burnt hundreds of thousands of innocent people at the stake, committed genocides all around the world and wiped out entire cultures and civilizations.
    This immunity is intrinsic to their existence and essential to their survival. Organised religions can’t be treated as any other organization because they can’t stand up to any reasonable scrutiny. They have a direct line to the imaginary friend in the sky!

  6. Tom

    What is everybody’s obsession with Royal Commissions? What does anyone think will be achieved? Given it would appear that pretty much everybody knows what happened to who, by who and who covered it up, why are the police not knocking on peaoples doors?

    A Royal Commision just gives the church (for it seems most denominations are guilty to some degree) between 12 and 24 months to bury any evidence. It seems as though the catolics are ding this already shipping records to Rome from where they cannot be legally requested by ANYONE EVER.

    …and if there were another horrible fire in Victoria again tomorrow, what would the result be? Pretty much the same as neither the Labor or Liberal Government’s have done anything of significance in context of the findings and recommendations of the the last one.

    So sure we’ll know what happened and who’s to blame but nobody will appear in the dock and it will not stop this from happening again.

    Organised religion does me me feel sick and I cannot for the life of me figure out how anybody can turn up to church, pay their subs and stay a member of a club that does such horrendous things and then actively covers it up to protect their reputation.

  7. Thteribl

    Sir Humphrey Appleby: “Never institute an inquiry unless you are certain of the outcome”.
    Rudyard Kipling : “One may not hide an elephant in the Living Room, but an elephant may be hidden in the jungle”.
    The danger is that a lot of guilty people will use the “fog” of a wide-ranging enquiry to slip below the radar.
    The danger is that a government with a slim budget may cut back the inquiry, leaving its “friends” untouched.

  8. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Have faith Tom. Joh Bjelke Petersons’s police commissioner went to jail. A number of his ministers went to jail. Joh was tried in a court of law, was seriously humiliated by his own admissions and although he was acquitted he was never forgiven. Don’t worry, there will be police knocking on doors soon enough.
    But we all have to be patient. Wait for the terms of reference, they might seem broad enough without being too broad, focussed enough without being too narrow, aggressive enough without being a star chamber.
    I don’t think you have any idea “…what happened to who, by who and who covered it up”. No one does yet. But step by step we might get closer. We wouldn’t want it any other way would we?

  9. Liz45

    I agree with you Hugh. I think we should wait and see before jumping in and calling it a white wash. This time there’ll be lots of stories – not individual ones that are usually the norm up until now. Too many people now know the truth – that will hopefully make the difference.

    Like you, I hope the terms of reference are adequate and the people chosen to handle this huge problem chosen wisely. And perhaps it should have a time limit – so people can look forward to the end, and hopefully to recommendations for the future. As you pointed out Hugh, the RC into the Qld and NSW police force brought about change – and people went to jail including the Qld Police Commissioner!

    I’m willing to wait and see! With hope, not for my sake, but for the tortured people who’ve suffered so much for so long. The more each one of us finds out, with social media now being a powerful tool for the ‘masses’ this RC will have one huge positive attribute others didn’t! The ‘ordinary’ person like us, with instant knowledge and the ability to respond from our homes and workplaces – regardless of how far away from the Inquiry we are!

    Look at the response via social media to the first 4 Corner’s program about the horrific abuse of animals in Indonesia. That was amazing! Let’s see what happens! (says I with fingers crossed!).

  10. AR

    Pell’s obfuscation & equivocation today in attempting to deflect focus on his band of brothers was a good example as could be imagined of an old, privileged male so out of touch with reality as to suggest that the meeja was at fault for not letting victims get on with their lives.

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