Announcement by the Chair of the Royal Commission

29 April 2016

The Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM
Chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse announcement

I am sitting this morning to outline the decisions which the Royal Commission has taken with respect to the completion of its work in private sessions. Although the Royal Commission will not hand down its final report until 15 December next year, as I will explain, it is necessary for us to announce our arrangements for private sessions during the remainder of the life of this Royal Commission.

It is just over three years since the Commonwealth Parliament amended the Royal Commissions Act 1902 to enable the Royal Commission to conduct private sessions. Shortly after the Act was amended I spoke at a hearing in Melbourne when I emphasised that the terms of reference of our inquiry provide, amongst other matters, 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 appropriate strategies and responses. The Terms of Reference direct the Commissioners to inquire into the experience of people directly or indirectly affected by child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts and the provision of opportunities for them to share their experiences in appropriate ways. I said on that occasion:

The Commissioners accept that part of the task given to us by the Terms of Reference is to bear witness on behalf of the nation to the abuse and consequential trauma inflicted upon many people who have suffered sexual abuse as children. The bearing of witness is the process of making known what has happened. It involves the telling of personal accounts by those who have experienced child sexual abuse as well as listening to the accounts of others who may have observed these crimes.

There are many examples through history of the importance of this process, especially when an event has provoked great moral outrage. The bearing of witness informs the public consciousness and prepares the community to take steps to prevent abuses from being repeated in the future. The public record will be informed by the process. The memorialisation and archiving of documents for posterity is an important legacy of bearing witness.

For individuals who have been traumatised, giving an account of their experiences and telling their story can be an important part of their own recovery process. The bearing of witness can break the silence over the abuse that a person experienced, in many cases years ago. It allows the person to be heard, understood and have his or her experiences recorded. The information gained can be used to develop better responses for the future.

In April 2013 we could only speculate about the number of people who may come to us for a private session. I said that it seemed likely that at least 5000 people will want to talk to the Commission. This estimate has proved to be conservative.

The Commissioners have now spoken with 5,111 survivors in private session. There are a further 1,544 survivors who have been accepted for a private session and are waiting for a meeting with a Commissioner. The rate at which people come to the Commission seeking a private session shows no present sign of diminishing. It has averaged 37 per week over the past 12 months.

Because each Commissioner must participate in the many tasks required of us by the Terms of Reference and, in particular, case studies and preparing our final report, the amount of time which we can each devote to private sessions is limited. With this in mind if, as seems likely, the present demand for private sessions continues throughout the life of the Commission, unless we close off applications well before we complete our final report, many people who may seek a private session will be disappointed. The Commissioners would not have the time to meet with them. I have made plain to government and confirm that the Commissioners do not believe that it would be appropriate for the Commission to extend beyond its present reporting date of 15 December 2017. In our view it would be intolerable for a survivor to be accepted for a private session only to find we could not meet with them.

The problem which must now be confronted has been under consideration for some time. We have discussed with the Australian Government possible responses including additional resources funded from our existing budget allocation or a process ongoing beyond the Commission to enable people to tell their story. However, there remains an immediate need for us to indicate the course which in the present circumstances the Royal Commission will take.

In order to ensure that any person who is accepted for a private session will have the opportunity to speak to a Commissioner we will close applications for a private session on 30 September this year. In selecting this date we are mindful that announcing a closing date may bring an increase in the number of people who approach us for a private session. We have factored this possibility into the decision to close applications on 30 September this year.

I must stress that the closing date applies only to new applications for a private session. People who have already been accepted for a private session or who apply before 30 September can be assured that they will have an opportunity to meet with a Commissioner. However beyond that date applications for a private session cannot be accepted. There can be no exceptions for any application received after that date. I know this will mean that some people will be disappointed. For that the Commissioners are sorry.

Although applications for a private session will close on 30 September the Royal Commission will still accept written accounts after that date. Furthermore where a survivor requires assistance a Commission Officer will be available to help people over the telephone to put their personal story in writing so that it can be read by a Commissioner. All written accounts will be read and acknowledged by a Commissioner.

As I indicated in April 2013 the Commissioners recognise that for individuals who have been traumatised by sexual abuse giving an account of their experiences and telling their story to a Commissioner is, for many survivors, an important part of their personal journey. We are aware that for a great many people their private session has made a significant contribution to their recovery. The information which the Commission has obtained from survivors has proved to be critical in informing our investigations and will provide a secure foundation for many of our final recommendations.

The Royal Commission provided its report to government in relation to Redress and Civil Litigation in August last year. At that time, although the trend was apparent, the future need for private sessions was not entirely clear. In the months that have passed the continuing demand has required us to make the decision to close applications for private sessions on 30 September.

It is apparent to us that it is likely that there will be an ongoing need for people to tell their story after the Commission has ceased to exist. Whether structured as a "truth telling" process or a form of restorative justice the Commissioners are of the view that when designing a national redress scheme or nationally consistent schemes, government and the relevant institution should ensure that an opportunity is provided for a survivor to be able to give an account of their experience to an appropriate person. Providing an opportunity for survivors to tell their story brings the benefits for the individual to which I have referred. One of those benefits is the acknowledgement to the survivor of both the failure of the individual institution and of our whole society to adequately protect many children.

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