Survivors of recent child s-xual abuse within Anglican institutions who are involved in current legal actions are still being required to sign secrecy agreements.

Families of the survivors are angry that an Anglican organisation is demanding the young victims remain forever silent as a condition of settlement, not just on the amount of compensation to be paid to the victims, but also silent forever on the crimes committed against them.

It is secrecy which, more than anything, has finally led to the need for a national royal commission into the abuse of children. Australia needs to hear clearly and openly from survivors about what has happened to them.

Calls for a royal commission began in earnest 10 years ago when national media coverage exposed how Anglican church officials covered up the abuse of up to 20 children named in a suicide note written by a p-edophile boarding master in a prestigious primary boarding school in regional Queensland. One of the victims, who had been repeatedly s-xually assaulted by the school’s senior boarding master Kevin Guy in 1990, sued the Corporation of the Synod of the Diocese of Brisbane for failing in its duty of care.

During a civil trial in 2001, evidence emerged that the then Anglican archbishop of Brisbane Peter Hollingworth, who was by then governor-general of Australia, had refused even to telephone the family of the girl.

In evidence, psychologist Joy Conolly told the court she had personally phoned, asking the archbishop to assist the girl’s family but he had told her he was “tired and stressed and there was nothing he could do”. The case propelled the issue into the media, triggering a flood of reports of child s-xual assault in churches and institutions across the country.

Despite calls by victims and advocate group Bravehearts, John Howard refused to call a royal commission. Brisbane’s current Anglican Archbishop Philip Aspinall instead ordered a Board of Inquiry which investigated how the Diocese had handled complaints against 10 clergy and church workers.

When it reported in May 2003, the inquiry found that Hollingworth’s decision to allow known p-edophile priest John Elliott to remain in Dalby parish on Queensland’s Darling Downs had been “untenable”. The governor-general resigned, admitting publicly: “I was wrong.”

During the ensuing 10 years, thousands of people have reported being s-xually assaulted during their schooling or within institutional care. Much more has been learned about the systemic nature of abuse within churches and other institutions and about the psychological damage inflicted on innocent children.

But too little has changed.

“Their accounts will be uncomfortable for Australians to hear. But hearing it will be necessary if major and lasting changes are to be made to protect Australian children in the future.”

In the past 15 years that I have been reporting on child s-xual assault I have heard horrific accounts of s-xual cruelty, torture and murder. Sadly, few of these accounts reach the pages of newspapers, partly because the victims fear they will not be believed or they fear the threats made by offenders or organisations.

Hopefully the ordering of a royal commission by Prime Minister Julia Gillard will give courage and strength to some of the most fragile survivors to tell their stories.

Their accounts will be uncomfortable for Australians to hear. But hearing it will be necessary if major and lasting changes are to be made to protect Australian children in the future.

As the royal commission begins its task, it will be important for it to examine the conditions that have allowed the abuse of children to continue in all denominations and to make recommendations for legal and institutional change to prevent offenders from “hiding” in institutions. Practical issues should also be addressed, including how to make it easier for victims to disclose abuse, to seek justice and to obtain compensation.

The current complex and traumatic legal processes — statutes of limitation differ from state to state; suppression orders and secrecy clauses are in place — also need to be examined and reviewed.

Church processes should also be examined, given the serious allegations made by New South Wales Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, who wrote to Premier Barry O’Farrell telling him of his concern that the Catholic Church “covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church”.

While the “seal of the confessional” has been used by clergy offenders to silence their own bishops from reporting crimes to police, churches have other mechanisms which also protect staff who are not clergy. In more recent years churches have encouraged victims to report child s-xual abuse directly to them rather than to the police. It’s allowed churches to warn offenders before vital police evidence can be gathered for a criminal prosecution, or shift them interstate or overseas.

Hopefully the royal commission will hear evidence from Fox and from priests and staff in churches who know about the internal mechanisms that have been used to protect known or suspected s-x offenders from prosecution.

Finally, cultural change must emerge: children who somehow manage to disclose abuse are the key to reducing the incidence of assault by identifying offenders as soon as is possible. Too often survivors who have reported offences to schools or churches have been met with disbelief, threats or even punishment.

A royal commission is long-overdue recognition of a serious national problem which devastates children and families. We know that supposedly “good” people are capable of heinous crimes against children. Now we need to change our institutions and criminal justice system to reflect reality rather than denying reality any longer.

Ten years has been too long to wait. But if its findings lead to better reporting processes, more transparent investigation techniques and new perceptions of survivors as part of the “answer” rather than “the problem”, it will make a vital contribution to making Australia a safer place for children.

*Amanda Gearing covered the Anglican abuse case as a journalist and has assisted survivors to recover and bring offenders to justice