Victims’ groups say personal testimony will remain central to the Gillard government’s landmark royal commission into child s-xual abuse, despite suggestions there will be limits placed by the commissioners on the thousands of individuals keen to tell their stories.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon revealed on AM this morning that the six commissioners responsible for possibly the biggest official inquiry in Australian history will be initially appointed for three years and will produce an interim report in 18 months time.

Drops in today’s newspapers reported a special unit will be set up to gather evidence and assist individual cases to avoid the commission getting bogged down in much personal detail. The RC would take a broad view of institutional malfeasance, investigate systemic problems and propose policy solutions to expunge the abuse scourge from pillars of Australian society including the Catholic Church.

However, a spokesperson for Catholic victims’ group Broken Rites told Crikey this morning individual testimony from thousands of abused Australians will remain central, given it’s the bravery of victims speaking up that shine the brightest light on crimes and cover-ups. Chris MacIsaac told Families Minister Jenny Macklin during consultation over the terms of reference that the RC’s success would be gauged on the number of victims able to tell — many for the first time — their harrowing tales of mistreatment:

“We believe that it’s the effort of the victims that’s brought out [the crimes], it’s not the Church itself. It’s the cover-up we want the royal commission to get at, to show how this terrible abuse became so widespread through society.”

That view is backed by other victims’ groups like Adults Surviving Child Abuse, which says the act of providing cathartic oral testimony is a key part of the healing process that should lead to a lessening of psychological trauma.

As Crikey hit deadline today the Prime Minister was preparing to front a press conference setting out the specific terms of reference and naming the six commissioners. It was foreshadowed last year that a broad dragnet would be cast across institutions including orphanages, youth groups and the Scouts in addition to the Church.

Roxon said today the specific details of width and breadth will remain in the hands of the commissioners, who are totally independent from government. An extension to the initial three-year appointment period was possible, and specific investigative tactics are yet to be decided, she said.

Importantly, the special investigative unit will be able to immediately brief police, who could then launch prosecutions against individuals. But MacIsaac says personal testimony will comprise the core evidence police will use to prosecute p-edophile priests. And she says there will be no shortage of volunteers: “We would assume that if the Victorian inquiry is any guide thousands of people will be willing to come forward and make submissions.”

Broken Rites believes the Church, rather than Australian taxpayers, should be forced to stump up the inevitable tens of millions of dollars in compensation that could end up being paid out. On Radio National Breakfast this morning the group’s laywer Jason Parkinson claimed the “Australian taxpayer had been underwriting priest p-edophilia for years” via Medicare and Centrelink payments to victims.

The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, has the reserves: it controls an estimated $100 billion in property and assets and has an annual turnover of $15 billion. However, unlike the Anglican Church, the Uniting Church and the Salvation Army, it does not exist as an official legal entity in Australia, a loophole that has in the past prevented victims from suing priests and accessing Church assets to secure proper compensation.

Peter Fray

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