Brisbane
Thursday 12 June 2014

The Hon Justice Peter McClellan AM
Chair, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

Improving Responses to Men Sexually Abused in Childhood: Confronting the Complexity

View the on-demand video of this speech on YouTube.

Thank you for inviting me to address your symposium today.

This is an important gathering which brings together many people with significant understandings of the issues under consideration by the Royal Commission. Unfortunately my commitments preclude me from remaining with you today.

When the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced in November 2012 that she intended to recommend the appointment of a Royal Commission to investigate the response of institutions to the sexual abuse of children no one had any realistic idea of the size of the task and the time that would be necessary to complete it. There was an understanding that the problem was significant but the number of people who may wish to give an account of their personal circumstances and the number of institutions which may be involved was unknown.

The Letters Patent for the Royal Commission were issued on 11 January 2013. They recognise the difficulties in defining the task and for that reason they require the Commission to provide an interim report to government by 30 June this year. In that report we must recommend the date which should be fixed for the submission of a final report.

Although the terms of reference contemplate that the final report should be delivered not later than 31 December 2015 this was always recognised to be unlikely to be achieved. When the Prime Minister announced the appointment of the Commissioners of the Royal Commission she said that “the terms of reference do set an end date for the Royal Commission of 31 December 2015 but that end date can be extended if necessary.”

It takes time to put in place the people and the facilities necessary to conduct an enquiry on the scale of this Royal Commission. I have spoken previously about the resources we needed before we could accept people’s stories. A priority has been the wellbeing of survivors who accept the trauma involved in recounting, possibly for the first time, the awful experience which scarred them as a child and may have left them with lifelong psychological disabilities and continuing problems.

We have now received the stories of more than 1,730 people in private sessions. There are around 1,000 further people who have been accepted for a private session. We continue to receive requests for private sessions at the rate of 40 per week. We have also received more than 1,650 written accounts from people who generally have not been to a private session.

When we commenced our work we were told that there were many people who would be cautious about contacting the Commission. They would prefer to wait and see whether they could trust our processes before coming forward. We are now receiving calls from people who tell us they have watched the Commission, followed its public hearings and listened to others who have come to us. Now that they understand the nature of the Commission and trust our processes they feel safe in telling us their story. We can expect that, as confidence grows, many more people will come forward.

Our program of private sessions is ongoing in every capital city and in some regional and remote centres. In recent weeks we commenced to conduct private sessions within the prison system. A Commissioner has also travelled to north western Australia to conduct private sessions. Our engagement with the prison system and in places outside of the main population centres will continue. However, it is not possible to identify how many people will want to talk to us from these locations.

By 31 May 2014, we had held a total of 12 public hearings. They have been held in Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney. We had 96 days of hearings, during which we heard from 219 witnesses.

By 30 June 2014, we will have completed 21 research projects. We anticipate that we will have completed 52 research projects by the end of 2015.

By 30 June 2014, we will have released seven issues papers.  We have received more than 300 submissions in response to the first five.

We held a community roundtable on 1 April 2014 which focused on out-of-home care. The second to be held next week will focus on Working with Children Checks.

By 31 May 2014, we had issued 643 notices or summonses to produce, and received around 400,000 documents in response. We also issued 246 notices or summonses to witnesses to appear before the Royal Commission.

We have received more than 13,500 phone calls at our call centre, and more than 5,500 pieces of correspondence.

I have referred over 160 matters to the police for investigation.

As the government originally contemplated it is now possible for us to identify the tasks which we must complete to effectively respond to the Letters Patent. When developing our plan we have been careful to reflect the essential obligations in the Letters Patent. They stress that it is important that claims of systemic failures by institutions in relation to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse be fully explored, and that best practice is identified. Further they state that it is important that those affected by child sexual abuse can share their experiences to assist with healing and to inform the development of strategies and reforms.

The Letters Patent require us to make recommendations about policy, legislative, administrative or structural reforms.
 
Since we began our work we have received allegations of abuse from people in more than 1,000 institutions. It has been suggested by some people that the problems we are looking at are all “historical”, happened in the past and are unlikely to occur today. An analysis of the institutions reported to us in private sessions confirms that, although it is possible that the level of abuse has diminished, the reality is that the potential remains.

Because private sessions are conducted with people who self-report, care should be taken before using this analysis for statistical purposes. However, it is informative and provides a contemporary context for sexual abuse allegations.

Thirty two percent of the institutions reported to us can be described as an industrial school, training school, reformatory, orphanage or children’s home. Some of the children in these facilities would have been part of the child migration program in the third quarter of the last century. Others would have been born out of wedlock, and because of the cultural norm of that time, surrendered to institutional care. It can be assumed that with the cessation of those programs and the widespread use of contraception and more accepting social attitudes the risk to children in those circumstances has been removed.

However, with the closure of orphanages and similar residential institutions for children, the problems which children previously faced when living in dysfunctional families or without effective care from a parent or guardian have not disappeared. Many of those children will today find their way into out-of-home care. Others of them who have encountered difficulties with the justice system will end up in some form of detention. They remain vulnerable to abuse, although in a different institutional setting.

Apart from this group there are three other types of institutions which are subject to high levels of complaint in the reports we have received in private sessions. Thirty percent of our private sessions have been conducted with people who were abused in a school or other educational setting. Sixteen percent have told us they were abused in a place of worship, in a church youth group or seminary. About eight percent report abuse in out-of-home care.

The balance of those coming to us in private sessions report abuse in a variety of circumstances including child care, sporting groups, health care and juvenile justice. We can assume that the number of children in child care - both day care and after school care - will have increased.

It is obvious that in any institution which has responsibility for children there is a risk of sexual abuse. As I have said it is only the child migrant children and children born out of wedlock who are no longer in institutions. All of the other institutions and accordingly opportunities for abuse remain.

Some types of institutions, in particular out-of-home care, and child day care and after school care have increased in number over recent years. Because it takes, on average, more than 20 years for people to report abuse, in some cases significantly longer, it is wrong to assume that abuse of children in an institutional context is a problem of the past. The task of the Royal Commission is to identify appropriate recommendations to respond to a problem which, although of necessity described by past events, must respond to future risks.

I have described on previous occasions the care with which the Royal Commission selects institutions to be considered in a public hearing. Although some must be hearings in relation to institutions which have ceased to exist many are not. We have conducted public hearings into the Scouts, YMCA, three schools, two diocesan churches and the Salvation Army. All of these institutions continue to exist. The risk of abuse accordingly remains. We will continue to select public hearings where we can develop issues of present relevance and develop contemporary responses.

Faith-based institutions, whether residential facilities, schools or diocesan constitute a significant proportion of the institutions reported to us by survivors. Many of these are Catholic institutions. Although we will look at a representative sample of all institutions in public hearings it is inevitable that there will be multiple Catholic institutions which must be considered.

You will be aware of the recent statements by Vatican spokesmen and the Pope in relation to the sexual abuse of children. To further our inquiries into the response of the Catholic Church to offending priests and religious in Australia I have written to Cardinal Tarusio Bertone the Secretary of State of the Vatican City seeking a copy of all documents held in Rome relating to complaints of sexual abuse by priests or religious. We have asked for copies of documents which reveal the nature and extent of communications between Catholic congregations in Australia and the Holy See. We have to date received some documents which are relevant to the public inquiry which will occur shortly in respect of the diocese of Wollongong. I am awaiting a reply in relation to our general request. From these documents we should be able to determine how church authorities in Australia, under the guidance or direction of the Vatican, have responded to individual allegations of abuse.

One of the difficult questions which the Royal Commission is considering is why does abuse occur or more directly why does a person become an abuser. A variety of views have been expressed. It is unclear to me whether we will ever be able to satisfactorily answer the question. However, we will identify and consider the theories which involve the structure of institutions and the profile of individuals who have authority within them in an endeavour to provide an answer to the question.

The issue is compounded by the fact that we know that the majority of abuse happens in a familial or other domestic context. That may be merely a product of numbers (most children live with a family) but it suggests that matters other than the fact of the institution are important. There are people who suggest that the obligation of celibacy increases the risk that a person will be an abuser. Some senior clerics have acknowledged in evidence to the Royal Commission that the issue should be considered. It may also be that familial abuse is predominantly a male assaulting a female which is occasioned by different factors to a male assaulting a boy in an entirely male environment. These are all complex issues which the Commissioners must consider.

It is already clear that the work we are doing is having a significant impact upon the way institutions operate and respond to the sexual abuse of children. Some of our understanding comes from evidence in public hearings and others from information obtained elsewhere.

The public hearing into the YMCA Caringbah has brought a response from both the YMCA and other child care groups. We understand YMCA is reviewing its employment and management procedures, both in NSW and elsewhere. We also understand that after hearing of the YMCA’s problems many other child care providers are reviewing their own practices, learning from the difficulties exposed at the YMCA and the failures which enabled abuse to occur.

As you know we have conducted public hearings into segments of the Catholic and Anglican churches. In those public hearings church leaders have both acknowledged past failures and promised to reconsider the institution’s response, including the monetary payments, made to individual survivors. The Salvation Army has responded in a similar way. I shall return to these issues in a moment.

We have now examined three schools in public hearings. In each of these significant problems of abuse have been identified. It has been reported to us that, as a consequence, many schools are reviewing their own employment and management practices and, where weaknesses are identified, appropriate changes are being made.

There are many other issues which we are considering through investigation, research and consultation. The Criminal and Civil Justice systems, Working with Children procedures, what makes an institution safe for children, and problems in out-of-home care are but some of those issues.

By the end of 2015 we estimate that having regard to the other work which we must complete we will have been able to conduct only 40 public hearings. From the information we have collected we have concluded that there are at least 30 more institutions which must be examined in a public hearing if we are to fulfil the requirements of the Letters Patent. Beyond the investigation of particular institutions we believe we should also conduct public hearings to review the response of institutions which have already been subject to a hearing to identify whether an effective response is being made to the problems which have been revealed. We will also conduct hearings in which we discuss with a number of institutions their individual responses to common problems.

Many survivors have told us of their experience when they complained of their abuse to the institution in which it occurred. Some institutions have developed a formalised process for their response. Others address these issues in an ad hoc fashion. In some states redress schemes, which include modest monetary payments, have also been developed. However, they are not universal.

Providing an appropriate response and redress to a person who has been abused raises many complex issues. A number of institutions have recognised the need to review the response which they have made to people in the past. However, they are hesitant to move forward without understanding the recommendations which the Royal Commission may make in this area. Notwithstanding the complexities of the task we recognise the need to address these problems at the earliest possible date. We have developed a program which will allow us to identify the issues, collect relevant information and provide recommendations. We are seeking to publish our conclusions and recommendations by the middle of next year.

Some of you will be aware of the complexities involved. It is common for institutions to recognise the need to separate any pastoral response to a survivor from any process which provides monetary redress or compensation. Institutions which have responded by offering money have generally also been the decision maker as to the amount which should be provided. Such a process is burdened by a fundamental conflict. That conflict is evident in some schemes where a cap is placed on the maximum payment which can be made. Although a redress scheme may need a cap, if it is imposed arbitrarily by the institution responsible for the payment it can be difficult for a survivor to accept the process is other than token and insincere.

Survivors generally identify three fundamental elements of an effective redress scheme. Many people seek apology from the institution and sometimes from the abuser which acknowledges and accepts responsibility for the harm done to them. They need the institution to accept that a member of that institution inflicted great harm and has caused great suffering.

Many survivors have a need for effective and ongoing counselling provided by appropriately qualified professionals. This comes at a cost, particularly where in some cases counselling is necessary for years or decades. Survivors understandably look to the institutions to meet that cost.

Apart from suffering personal health issues many survivor’s lives have been seriously compromised in other ways. In some cases the damage is so great that they have never been able to complete an education, establish satisfactory personal relationships and provide the security of a home and other basics of life. The process by which the sexual abuse of a child can seriously damage the personal development of the individual may not be fully understood. However, it is clear beyond argument that in some people this will occur. To help with these difficulties many survivors seek a money payment. For some it brings an acknowledgement of the failure of the institution. But for others it reflects a need for financial assistance to sustain their lives.

There are many other issues which the Royal Commission must address. They are discussed in the Interim Report which will be provided to governments on 30 June. The Commissioners look forward to engaging with both individuals and institutions throughout the country to develop recommendations which will achieve the objective of making our institutions safer places for children. This is an opportunity for all of us to bring fundamental and lasting change to the wellbeing of children in an institutional context.