Over 5000 victims of child sexual abuse in institutions — or those who bore witness or knew of cover-ups of said abuse — are expected to give evidence to the royal commission over the next year, according to the opening remarks by chair Justice Peter McClellan. They will speak, many told Crikey this morning, for as long as it takes.

In the opening day of an inquiry expected to last years, McClellan admitted he already expects the commission will not have finished its investigation by the time the interim report is due next year. Twelve hundred people with stories of abuse have already contacted the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (before it had even solicited people to call) and it expects to begin hearing these stories in private sessions and public hearings from the last quarter of the year.

When Crikey arrived at the Victorian County Court, Derryn Hinch was outside being interviewed in front of around 20 protesters from the Care Leavers Australia Network, who were wearing yellow badges and holding red signs supporting the royal commission and criticising governments for past inaction. For the last five years, CLAN has protested monthly outside the County Court calling for a royal commission into children in care and issues of sexual abuse in institutions.

One of the protesters, Joan Finn, spent years living in Catholic homes. She says it was “very important” she was there today. “It’s a long struggle and we feel as if we’re making good progress and we’ve been recognised — and believed, which is more important than anything else.”

Over half of those sitting in room three on level three of the Victorian County Court appeared to be survivors who had come along to find out how their voices would be heard. Many were clearly friends and associates after years of campaigning, with CLAN members having travelled from country Victoria and interstate to attend the opening day. Crikey overhead a lot of conversations which began: “Big day today, eh?” “Exciting day.”

Behind Crikey sat a man in his 60s who had grown up in a variety of Catholic children’s homes in Victoria from the age of two. On our right was a fellow who said he’d been sexually abused at the age of 10 while living in care and it was years before he’d realised what had happened to him. He says the statue of limitations (how long a crime could be reported after it was committed) was too small at seven years, as the average child sexual abuse claim takes 24.5 years to report. “It plays on your mind for the rest of your life,” he said.

“We don’t want to know what happened to our children,” said CLAN president Leonie Sheedy. Is that attitude changing? “It might change because of today. Hopefully,” she told Crikey.

The breadth of institutions being examined by the royal commission is tremendous. It includes residential care facilities (such as orphanages), religious organisations, recreational and sporting groups (including football and swimming clubs, Girl Guides and Scout groups), child care centres, state government child protection agencies and those which supervise foster care, detention centres which house refugees, defence forces, all forms of education facilities (including kindergarten, primary and secondary schools) and juvenile justice centres.

“It has to take as long as it needs. And this reflects the severity and the breadth of the problem, it is huge.”

The commission is now calling for survivors of abuse from these institutions to contact them. They can either speak in a private session with just one or two commissioners, which will be held in meeting rooms in hotels around the country, or they can tell their story at a public hearing. Commissioners say they are sensitive to privacy and mental health issues and will be careful keeping private sessions as anonymous as people wish.

Those who wish to write their experience can send in a written statement to the royal commission or get in touch with the commission about the process of how to write a statement. The commission will also take evidence given in other inquiries — such as state inquiries into institutional care.

An interim report to the government is due on June 30, 2014. Said McClellan:

“I believe that it may be difficult for us to complete a proper investigation and report on more than six institutions between now and the time of the interim report. Our inquiries indicate that most institutions are not immediately able to provide the commission with documents which record their internal management practises and the manner in which they may have dealt with complaints of child sexual abuse.”

At this point, Sheedy audibly whispered: “They shredded them!” McClellan went on:

“It will be apparent that the task defined by the terms of reference is so large, both as to the number of people who may wish to give their account and the number of institutions who may be affected by allegations, that it is unlikely that the commission can complete its work within the time frame currently fixed for delivery of the final report.”

After the opening address, Sheedy told Crikey she was “overwhelmed” but also slightly concerned — while interpreters are available to give evidence, she had many members of CLAN who were unable to read or write or had severe hearing issues.

Judy Courtin is currently completing her doctoral studies in sexual abuse in the Catholic Church at Monash University. She attended the inquiry and agrees it may takes years to complete. “It has to take as long as it needs,” she said. “And this reflects the severity and the breadth of the problem, it is huge. And people have suffered and continue to suffer for decades and decades and it is problem that the community needs to address and this is a great way of beginning to address that.

“It’s a momentous day, it’s historic. Having said that, it’s been very tardy in coming and it reflects badly on previous governments that they didn’t take these issues seriously a very long time ago. But we’ve got it now and in a sense the battle is just beginning. I expect, and the victims and survivors expect, the Catholic Church, for example, to continue its previous modus operandi — which is basically very adversarial and legalistic — and that they’re going to fight every inch of the way. Which is why we needed an inquiry that matches those operandi of the Catholic Church.”