ANZATSA 7th Biennial Conference

5 November 2015

Melbourne, Victoria

The Hon Justice Peter McClellan AM
Chair, Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse adressed the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abuse 7th Biennial International Research, Theory & Practice Conference.


The Royal Commission first sat in public in April 2013. On that occasion I emphasised that Australians of recent generations have lived through a period of rapid change across many aspects of society. Many changes can be identified. One which is important for the work of the Royal Commission is the preparedness of the community to challenge authority and the actions of those in power in areas where this would not previously have been contemplated.

We have also seen significant changes in the manner in which power is distributed throughout the community. The women's movement and the fact that many women now hold positions of responsibility in government and business are markers of many of the changes that have occurred.

These changes have brought with them a need and capacity to reflect on the functioning of institutions and the behaviour of individuals within those institutions. We have seen both Royal Commissions and Inquiries directed to that end. Some Inquiries have been conducted by Senate Committees.

Inquiries have looked at diverse issues including institutional and out of home care, foster care, child migration, the various child protection systems in the States and Territories, the stolen generations, Aboriginal deaths in custody, child sexual abuse in Indigenous communities and forced adoptions.

Many Inquiries have touched upon the issues raised by the Royal Commission's Terms of Reference. They number more than 40. Some of the inquiries will be familiar to you. They include: in NSW, the Paedophile Inquiry of the Wood Royal Commission; in Queensland, the Forde Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions; in Victoria, the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations; in South Australia, the Mullighan Inquiry into Children in State Care; in Tasmania, the Select Committee on Child Protection Final Report; and in Western Australia, the Blaxell Inquiry into St Andrew’s Hostel Katanning: How the System and Society Failed Our Children.

At the Commonwealth level they include the Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care. That inquiry culminated in the publishing of the Forgotten Australians report in 2004, and an apology to survivors being delivered in Parliament in November 2009.
In addition, there have been a very large number of Inquiries into these issues overseas. As the Royal Commissions and Inquiries that have been held in the last 30 years make plain, the community has come to acknowledge that fundamental wrongs have been committed in the past which have caused great trauma and lasting damage to many people.

Although a painful process, if a community is to move forward, it must come to understand where wrongs have occurred and so far as possible, right those wrongs.

It must develop principles which, when implemented through legislation and changes in the culture and management practices of institutions and the behaviour of individuals, will ensure a better future for subsequent generations.

Our methods

As many of you would be aware it is typical for Royal Commissions to receive evidence in public. However, conscious of the trauma and suffering associated with child sexual abuse and the difficulties many survivors have in telling their stories the Commonwealth Parliament amended the Royal Commission Act 1902.

It created a process that allows Commissioner’s to hear from survivors in private. It is referred to as a ‘private session’. Without such a process the ‘bearing witness’ and ‘truth telling’ component of the Royal Commission’s work could never have been achieved.

Guided by a trauma-informed approach, private sessions provide a safe, supportive environment where a person can tell their story in confidence to a Commissioner. For some survivors telling their story to a Commissioner in a private session is the first time they have disclosed their abuse.

For others it is the first time in their life they have been believed.  One survivor told us, “After 50 years I finally feel I’ve been heard. People have listened to me before, but no one has really heard me”. For many survivors, private sessions can be a powerful and healing experience.

The Commissioners have already heard from over 4,200 people in private sessions. There are an additional 1,400 on the waiting list. And each week, approximately 40 new people are referred for a private session.

In England and Wales the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has recently been established to review the extent to which institutions in those countries have discharged their duty of care to protect children against sexual abuse. It is proposing to use many similar methods to those we have employed in Australia including private sessions.

Apart from private sessions the Commissioners’ understanding of child sexual abuse is also gained through public hearings. Public hearings allow us to examine in detail the response of one or more institutions to allegations of abuse. They help advance our understanding of systemic issues.

Those include how institutions recruit, screen, induct and manage staff who work with children; the ways in which institutions deal with staff who have been accused of abuse; and, how institutions handle complaints, claims or civil actions. Public hearings reveal the cultures and attitudes that have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the covering up and the “normalisation” of child sexual abuse. 

Public hearings also have a significant role in driving institutional and regulatory change. Many institutions who have not themselves been the subject of a public hearing have already responded to the problems revealed in similar institutions and have implemented change or reviews intended to improve the safety of the children in their care.

The Royal Commission has held 33 public hearings. Hearings have been held in every state in Australia. This week we commenced our 34th public hearing – an inquiry into the experience of former students of Brisbane Grammar and St Paul’s School in Brisbane. We have so far reported on 15 case studies. Others are close to completion. These reports are available on our website as soon as they have been tabled in Parliament.

Apart from private sessions and public hearings the other significant component of our work is our research and policy development program. This has the assistance of national and international experts across many disciplines. The program has four broad areas of focus; prevention, identification, response and justice for victims. 

Many of you here today may have participated in our policy and research initiatives, and I thank you for your contributions. Your experience, expertise and knowledge is highly valued.

Some statistics

You will be interested in some of the information we have gathered to this stage. Our most recent analysis of 2,794 private sessions tell us:

  • Around 62% of survivors are male, and around 37% are female.
  • Around 30% of survivors are aged between 50 and 59. Almost 25% are aged between 60 and 69. Around 20% are aged between 40 and 49.
  • The average age at abuse was just over 10 for males and just under 10 for females.
  • The most common decade in which abuse reported to us first occurred was the 1960s (around 28%) followed by the 1970s (23%).
  • The most common type of institution in which abuse occurred – at around 45% - was out of home care (this includes orphanages, children’s homes or foster care)
  • Around 60% of the institutions in which sexual abuse occurred were faith-based organisations, followed by 23% which were managed by government.
  • Most offenders were male - around 89%.
  • Half of the abuse involved penetration and around two thirds involved fondling.
  • On average, children were abused over a period of 2.8 years.

I must emphasise that these statistics are of those who have made contact with us and come to a private session. It may not be representative of all survivors.

Impacts of child sexual abuse

It would not be a surprise for this audience to learn that an analysis of our private sessions data indicates that impacts on behaviour and mental health functioning are the most commonly reported impacts by survivors.

Many people who have been abused report post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and high rates of alcohol and substance abuse.

An often unrecognised impact of child sexual abuse is the adverse impact on ‘human capital’. These are the skills, knowledge and experience that equip people to engage and participate in society. Compared to non-abused groups, victims of abuse are less likely to achieve secondary school qualifications, gain a higher school certificate, attend university and gain a university degree.[1]

We have also learnt about problems with sexual identity, sexual adjustment and links to prostitution as a result of being abused as a child.

You all know of the many other impacts including suicide, mood and personality disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, re-victimisation, parenting difficulties and intergenerational trauma. As one forensic psychologist described the issue to us the impact can be on the whole person.
She said:

It’s not like you can isolate it like, just one organ; not like you've just got kidney damage but your liver is working fine. It's like every part of your person is affected by that, so it's really difficult to separate out. It's almost impossible to know what could have been if it hadn't been for the trauma because every part of your being has been affected by it.

My researchers tell me that there is comparatively little research on the specific impacts of child sexual abuse in an institutional context. Although likely to be comparable with the impacts of child sexual abuse that occurs in other contexts, the characteristics of the impacts may be different. Abuse by a respected priest or teacher may have a different consequence than abuse at home.

Trust in all of society’s institutions can be lost. We also know that parents and extended family may experience grief, guilt, shame and rage at not being able to prevent the abuse, not recognising its occurrence or for engaging the child with the institution where the abuse occurred.

These effects may persist over time and are associated with a series of stressful life events. A study of 39 parents of children abused in a day care setting found that many families relocated after the abuse in response to media coverage and the legal process. Parents reported changing jobs, taking excessive time off work due to stress, and losing social connections.[2]

People who have been abused in religious institutions report spiritual impacts – in particular, negative impacts on their belief in God. They report reduced engagement and involvement with the church.

They report feelings of distrust and anger towards the church. This can lead to a crisis in faith, increasing discomfort with religious rituals, and rage at the church for its perceived role in occasioning and concealing the abuse. For some, this can lead to the abandonment of faith altogether.[3]


Given the profoundly damaging and often long lasting impacts of child sexual abuse for some survivors, the question must be asked - how should we respond to people who have been abused? How can we alleviate the devastating effects? Our terms of reference require us to look at justice for victims, including amongst other issues, the provision of redress.

The Royal Commission realised early in our work that the issue of redress was critical for survivors. Many survivors have indicated an urgent need for assistance. They need professional help to heal, and to live a productive and fulfilled life. Many want the institution to be recognised to have failed them. They want it to be required to make a payment in recognition of that failure.

Our redress consultation process was extensive. Our recommendations were developed with the benefit of information gathered from private sessions, public hearings and private roundtables.  

The Government released our final report on redress in September. The fundamental need identified in the report is for a single national redress scheme to be established by the Australian Government but funded by the institutions in which survivors were abused.

The national scheme we recommend represents an opportunity for governments and institutions to come together to provide justice for survivors. Each institution, whether government, faith-based or secular, would contribute to the scheme in proportion to the number of survivors abused in that institution. Non-government institutions would be required to contribute more than half the costs of redress.

A national scheme fulfils two key requirements necessary to ensure equal justice for survivors. A single national scheme would ensure that the institution in which abuse occurred would not be the decision maker in respect of a survivor’s entitlement. A conflict of this nature has been a troublesome aspect of some redress schemes in the past.

The other important requirement is that survivors would be treated equally regardless of the institution, or place in Australia, in which they were abused.

We estimate that a national scheme would have 60,000 eligible claimants; 21,880 from NSW, 15,980 from Victoria, 8,470 from Queensland, 6,410 from Western Australia, 3,800 from South Australia, 1,750 from Tasmania, 1,130 from the ACT, and 580 from the Northern Territory.

We recommend that a scheme contain three main elements - a direct personal response, counselling and psychological care as and when required, and modest monetary payments. The Commissioners have recommended a minimum payment of $10,000, a maximum payment of $200,000 with an average payment of $65,000.

The funding of counselling and psychological care for survivors when required has not generally been an element of the redress schemes previously provided by some state governments.

We recommend that counselling should be available throughout a survivor’s life. As you all know trauma associated with sexual abuse is not a medical condition that can always be cured at a specific point in time so that it will not recur. Counselling should be available when the need arises.

The Commissioners made a number of recommendations about the professionals who provide counselling and psychological care. We recommend that psychological care be provided by practitioners with the qualifications and expertise to work with clients with complex trauma. And we recommend that survivors be allowed flexibility and choice, with no fixed limits on the counselling and care provided.

The Commissioners also recommend that treating practitioners be required to conduct ongoing assessment and review and ensure treatment is necessary and effective.

Some state governments and some institutions have previously responded by making redress payments. The Commissioners decided that, to differing degrees, all previous responses have been inadequate. Apart from lacking effective psychological care, the monetary payments have been available to only a limited group of people and have, in our view, been less than appropriate.

The different state schemes have had inconsistent outcomes and for that reason, amongst others, fail the test of reasonable fairness. Fairness requires equal justice for all survivors.

The Tasmanian Government’s redress scheme made average payments of $30,000 (not adjusted for inflation) across all categories of abuse. 1,848 payments were made. A total of $55 million was spent by the Tasmanian Government on redress payments.

The Western Australian Government’s redress schemes made average payments of $23,000 (not adjusted for inflation) across all categories of abuse, with higher average payments for applications involving sexual abuse. 5,302 payments were made. A total of $120 million was spent by the Western Australian Government on redress payments.

The South Australian Government has made average payments of $14,100 (not adjusted for inflation) per person for persons sexually abused as children in state care. As at 31 December 2014, 96 offers have been made with 85 having been accepted. Approximately $1.2 million has been spent by the South Australian Government on redress payments under the statutory victims of crime compensation scheme.

The Queensland Government’s redress scheme made average payments of $13,000 (not adjusted for inflation) across all categories of abuse, with higher average payments for applications involving sexual abuse. 7,168 payments were made. A total of $96 million was spent by the Queensland Government on redress payments.

In relation to the redress schemes of institutions the data shows average payments of $48,300 by the Catholic Church under ‘Towards Healing’; average payments of $38,800 by the Catholic Church under the ‘Melbourne Response’; and average payments of $51,000 by the Salvation Army under its various redress procedures. These include payments in response to abuse that did not include sexual abuse.

The Commissioners recognise that some survivors have already received monetary payments through previous or existing schemes. For that reason, we recommended that any previous payment must be deducted from the monetary payment under a national scheme. Our recommendations are designed to ensure that all survivors are treated fairly, but we also recognise the contributions which some institutions have already made.

I encourage you to take a look at our final recommendations on redress. You will find the report on our website. Our recommendations are now with all Australian governments. I understand that consultation and discussion are underway.

Advocacy and support

During our consideration of redress and civil litigation, it became clear that victims and survivors have a range of needs beyond being able to access counselling and psychological care as part of a redress scheme.

In response to these concerns the Commission has instigated a separate project to investigate the adequacy of advocacy and support services for victims and survivors.

This project will also look at the needs of survivors’ family members and broader communities. Last month we released an issues paper which discusses advocacy and support and therapeutic treatment services for victims and survivors.

You can find details about our issues paper on our website. Our recommendations on this issue will be contained in the Royal Commission’s final report in 2017.


It would be remiss of me to talk about the treatment of child sexual abuse without reference to prevention.

As I mentioned earlier, prevention is one of four broad areas of focus within the Royal Commission’s policy and research program.  It includes the sub-themes of primary prevention and preventing recidivism. We are currently exploring a number of questions in this area including: 

  • How do we prevent people with sexual thoughts about children from committing an act of child sexual abuse?
  • How do we prevent re-offending and how do we treat those who are convicted of a sexual offence?
  • How do we prevent children from engaging in problem sexual behaviour, sexually abusive behaviour and/or sexual offending?
  • How do we make organisations ‘child safe’?
  • How do we change community attitudes to better protect children from sexual abuse?

Working With Children Checks

Working With Children Checks are one of a range of strategies needed to make organisations child-safe. The Royal Commission’s final report on Working With Children Checks was released by Government on 17 August 2015. The report makes 36 recommendations designed to strengthen Working With Children Check regimes throughout Australia.

As some of you may be aware each state and territory presently has its own working with children scheme, although the South Australian approach is very modest. Each of the eight schemes operates independently of the others. The schemes are inconsistent and complex. There is inadequate information sharing and monitoring of Working With Children Check cardholders.

This lack of consistency and integration raises significant issues. In a country of 24 million people with mobility amongst those who work with children, the present system means that children are being afforded different levels of protection depending on the state or territory in which they are located.

A further consequence is that if an organisation, say the Scouts, has a national gathering it cannot guarantee parents that every adult supervisor has the same level of Working With Children accreditation. It means that people who have responsibility for children in more than one jurisdiction must have multiple checks.

I have previously described the lack of a national framework for Working With Children Checks as ‘a blight upon the communities’ efforts to provide effectively for the protection of children’.

The recommendations in our report seek to remedy these problems. We have recommended a national approach. That approach would involve the establishment of a centralised database similar to, and which could utilise, the present CrimTrac arrangements. The effect would be one accreditation which would operate across jurisdictions.
Because any Working With Children Check scheme can be constructed to provide that a fee is taken for the service the proposal would come at a minimal cost to government.

We have asked that governments implement the majority of our recommendations within 12 months. The Commissioners are firm in the view that the current disparate arrangements should be modified to bring consistency and avoid duplication.

We trust that the suggested changes designed to enhance the safety of children can be taken forward through effective negotiation between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories. Although a Working With Children Check is not a guarantee of children’s safety it is accepted as an essential step in constructing a child safe environment.

Positive impacts

The Royal Commission is painting a bleak picture of our communities’ past management of the safety of children in some Australian institutions. However, we know that positive changes are taking place in response to our work. I will mention some of them.

Since the Royal Commission began, I have referred over 760 matters to authorities, mostly to the police. This has resulted in a number of arrests and charges. Many police investigations have been instituted.

Organisations working directly with people who are abused tell us that the Royal Commission has encouraged people to talk about abuse. For many the reluctance to talk, a product of the stigma attached to the issue, has been lifted. Survivors are now encouraged to seek support.

Karen Willis, the chief executive of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, has said that the Royal Commission has helped remove the shame felt by victims of child sexual abuse. She says more people are calling the Rape and Domestic Violence Service as a result. 

There is a heightened awareness about child safety amongst organisations providing services to children. Both Bravehearts and Child Wise have seen a significant increase in training and child safety certification requests since we commenced our work. Many institutions are reviewing their approach to ensuring the safety of children in their care.

Organisations have taken concrete steps to better protect children.

In September this year, the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney announced the creation of a new child protection office which follows a widespread Archdiocesan review undertaken since the Royal Commission looked at the Archdiocese. This new office will work to achieve best practice when dealing with child protection, education, training, working with parishes and responding pastorally to survivors of abuse.

The Australian Olympic Committee has responded. Following the Swimming Australia public hearing the AOC has required Working with Children Checks for all coaches, staff and officials prior to their joining the Australian Olympic Team for the Rio games next year.

The President of the AOC has engaged directly with the Commission to ensure that effective practices and procedures are in place for all of the sports which operate under the banner of the Olympic movement.
Many institutions have come to recognise the traumatic and destructive impact of child sexual abuse. Since public hearings began, many institutions have taken responsibility for past wrongs, and have apologised for the hurt and suffering they caused children in their care.

The most recent apology came from the Salvation Army (Southern Territory)’s Commissioner Floyd Tidd during a public hearing in October into a number of children’s homes operating between 1940 and 1990.

Other organisations have offered increased compensation by reopening previously settled cases. In July this year, the Christian Brothers announced a total of 64 Western Australian cases which had previously been settled had been re-examined. Similar responses have come from an Anglican Diocese, the Salvation Army and some Catholic Diocese.

During the public hearing into the Melbourne Response, the Catholic Church response to survivors in the Melbourne Archdiocese, Archbishop Denis Hart announced that he had appointed a former Federal Court judge to conduct a review of their process.

Changes are also occurring at the legislative level. One example, legislation proposed by the NSW Government that would require chief executives of organisations that deal with children to undergo the same screening as front line staff. In announcing the proposal the Minister referred to the Royal Commission’s report on Scouts Australia.


We have a long way to go before we can confidently say our institutions are safer, children are better protected, and people who have been abused are receiving the treatment and support they need to lead productive lives.

But the Royal Commission provides a unique opportunity to develop recommendations that make real and lasting change. In a contemporary society marked by fierce competition for scarce resources, this opportunity does not come about often.

I thank you for your ongoing dedication and commitment to assisting those in the community who suffer sexual abuse. The Royal Commissioners are committed to do what they can to minimise these problems in institutions in the future.

[1] JM Boden, LJ Horwood and DM Fergusson, 'Exposure to childhood sexual and physical abuse and subsequent educational achievement outcomes', Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 31, no. 10, 2007,  pp. 1101-1114
[2] G Dyb et al, 'Alleged sexual abuse at a day care center: impact on parents', Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 27, no. 8, 2003,  pp. 939-950
[3] T Blakemore, JL Herbert and F Arney, Impacts of institutional child sexual abuse on victims/survivors: A rapid review of research findings, Sydney, Australian Government (unpublished)

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