Sins of the past

Last month marked the first anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Although established in January of last year, the real work of the Commission began in April, when commissioners began conducting private sessions for victims to share their stories of abuse.

A recently released report from the Royal Commission highlighted the shocking extent of child sexual abuse. More than 8000 victims have told their stories, either in person or via phone calls and emails.

Royal Commission CEO, Janette Dines, stressed the importance of private sessions, both for the victims of abuse and the commissioners investigating. The private sessions showed that, while abuse was widespread throughout Australia, similarities had emerged regarding the impact and the nature of the abuse.

“For example, commissioners have heard that sexual abuse is often accompanied by serious physical abuse, particularly when that abuse occurred decades ago,” Ms Dines said.

“Other similarities include a generally stated dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system and the anguish felt by many victims that, despite attempts to disclose the abuse at the time it occurred, they were not believed.”

Seventy per cent of those who have come forward are over 50 years of age, and two-thirds of them are men. For most (51 per cent), the abuse occurred when they were aged between 10 to 14 years, with 31 percent reporting abuse between the ages of five and nine.

The establishment of the Royal Commission follows on from work already undertaken in Victoria.  As the name suggests, The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse in Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations focussed on how organisations responded to reports of abuse.

The comprehensive report was tabled in state parliament in November last year, and recommended a number of significant legislative changes in relation to practices, policies and protocols in such organisations.

The Uniting Church in Australia has set up task forces at both synod and assembly levels to respond to issues raised by state enquiries and the Royal Commission. The Royal Commission will hold public hearings in Melbourne in July.

This month, chair of the synod Royal Commission Task Group, Charles Gibson, and task group network program officer, Bessy Andriotis, discuss the Church response.

Redressing the wrongs of the past

Through our predecessors – the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist Churches – a number of children’s homes operated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. A small amount of out-of-home-care is still provided by UnitingCare agencies in this synod. The Church also continues to provide children’s and youth programs throughout Victoria and Tasmania.

Some children in the care of this church were subjected to various of forms of abuse.  We know this through the experiences shared with us by those who have come forward in recent years. Stories of abuse have also been highlighted in the findings of Senate Inquiries into the treatment of Aboriginal children, children placed in children’s homes and other forms of care and the child migrants who came to Australia from the United Kingdom.

The extent and cruelty of the abuse across our society can only be described as shocking.

The Uniting Church has strong theological foundations to its commitment to address the injustice of child abuse. Redress of wrongs is captured in the Basis of Union which states that “The Uniting Church prays that through the gift of the Spirit, God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in life…” (Basis of Union, Para 18).

The Uniting Church Values Statement, issued by the Assembly Standing Committee (ASC) for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, affirms that: “…we will not hide from the truth, however painful it may be, and we will seek, with compassion and humility to address whatever issues and challenges may emerge for us. We will say ‘sorry’ to anyone who was neglected and abused when in our care and, in consultation with those so affected, actively seek for ways to make amends for what happened in the past and identify how we can best offer support into the future.” (p1).

The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse in Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations is one way through which the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania has sought to contribute to redress for survivors of child abuse.

Our Submission can be read at: Tabled in November 2013, the report of the Parliamentary Committee: “…asked some obvious but fundamental questions about the occurrence of criminal child abuse.”

The Committee “heard graphic accounts that detailed horrendous and traumatic experiences of victims abused as children in the care of non-government organisations. This abuse spanned a period of decades through to more recent times.

“Adult victims of criminal child abuse told the Inquiry they were seeking justice for what they felt to be loss of their innocence as a child. They wanted to see consequences for perpetrators, to see them removed from their position in the organisation, reported to the police and potentially punished through the criminal justice system. They also hoped that organisations they had trusted would acknowledge that they failed in their duty of care to protect them from the harm of criminal abuse.

“The Committee considered the suggestions for reform from victims and their families in addition to the evidence of other participants and experts.”

Questions about child sexual abuse specifically are also being asked at the national level by the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. It is inquiring into how the wide range of organisations in our society, with a responsibility for children –including governments – have managed and responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse.

It will investigate where systems have failed to protect children, and make recommendations on how to improve laws, policies and practices to prevent and better respond to child sexual abuse in institutions.

The Royal Commission is holding public and private hearings in different capital cities of Australia. It has also invited responses to various Issues Papers to which the Uniting Church has responded.

In its first year the Commission has received 8,500 phone calls and 3,300 letters. It has heard the stories of over 1000 people who suffered child sexual abuse. One way it is investigating institutional responses to child sexual abuse is by examining particular case studies of an issue or a cluster of complaints against an organisation.

The Uniting Church is actively preparing for any involvement in the Royal Commission. The synod has established a Task Group to do this work. The Task Group comprises the General Secretary, representatives from UnitingCare Victoria and Tasmania, the Presbytery of Tasmania, UnitingCare agencies, Uniting Church schools and the Synod’s Culture of Safety Unit. There is also a National Task Group coordinating the responses of all the synods.

The Synod Task Group is gathering and evaluating the policies on the prevention of child sexual abuse that each entity of the Uniting Church has developed. It is also gathering data about allegations of child abuse that have been made in the past and how these were handled. We are also looking at our records and improving access to those.

There are strong indications that the recommendations of the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry report will be implemented and the Task Group is considering the likely impact of these recommendations.

The aim of this work is to make the Church a safer place for children.

If you have experienced child sexual abuse within the church, or within another organisation, and you want to tell the Royal Commission your story you can do this in writing, by telephone or in person. Further information is available at Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Abuse Callers within Australia – 1800 099 340 (Toll free number. Calls from a mobile or pay telephone will attract additional charges). For general information go to:

The publicity surrounding this Royal Commission may help people who have been abused to speak out for the first time, even if the incident happened a very long time ago. If this happens within your congregation you may find the following advice helpful.

How to handle disclosures of abuse

  • Listen…    do not add anything to what the person says
  • Reassure…    them and acknowledge the large step forward they have taken in  speaking to you
  • Inform…    the person that there are people who can help them
  • Ensure…    the person is in a safe state of mind, before they leave you
  • Act…    by walking beside them when and if they decide to report the  matter to the authorities

How to report

Encourage adults who disclose historical abuse (that occurred when they were a child) to report the alleged abuse to police or a counsellor, and in the event of the alleged abuser being a minister, a member or adherent, to the Church’s Ethical Standards Officer – Lauren Mosso Ph: (03) 9340 8825, e-mail:

[Note: all disclosures from children and young people alleging harm, abuse or neglect should be reported to both Child Protection Services and local Police. Inform the (UCA) General Secretary of the allegation and the Congregation’s proposed plan of support.]


In summary, the Victorian Parliamentary Committee recommended the following changes:

  • Anyone who conceals abuse or fails to report it will be criminally liable.
  • An officer of an organisation who puts a child at risk or fails to take reasonable steps to protect a child, knowing there is a risk, may be held criminally liable for endangering a child’s welfare.
  • A person need not have gained from failing to report a serious indictable offence in order to be guilty of an offence.
  • Organisations may be held directly liable for criminal acts of their employees.
  • Grooming of a child or its parents will be a crime.
  • Child abuse will be excluded from the civil law’s statute of limitations.
  • Dealing with victims within organisations will be replaced by an independent authority funded by non-government organisations.
  • Organisations that are government-funded or receive tax benefits must be incorporated and insured.
  • An independent statutory authority would assist peak organisations provide their members with guidance.
  • The operation of the Working with Children Check will be improved.
  • The Victorian Government would require organisations to have a minimum standard for ensuring a child-safe environment and a zero tolerance to criminal child abuse.


Additional Reporting and Counselling Services for Victoria

Bethel Pastoral Centre (Synod Resource) 59 Doncaster Road Balwyn North VIC 3104
Ph: (03) 9859 8700

Sexual Assault Crisis Line 1800 806 292

SASS – Sexual Assault support service
(for recent or past assaults)

These organisations that are located throughout Victoria will deliver free services such as counselling, support and case management to individuals and their family members before, during and after their interaction with the Royal Commission:,-families-and-young-people/sexual-assault/support-services/sexual-assault-support-services-contact-list

Reporting and Counselling Services for Tasmania

Bethel Pastoral Centre (Synod Resource) 59 Doncaster Road Balwyn North VIC 3104
Ph: (03) 9859 8700

SASS – Sexual Assault support service
(for recent or past assaults)
Ph: (03) 6231 1817 24 hour service

Relationships Australia – Tasmania.
Hobart, Devonport and Launceston employ dedicated counsellors for historical abuse.
Ph: 1300 364 277

Presbytery Ministers
Carol Bennett: 0409 852 582
Alison Whish: 0419 150 019


Share Button



Comments are closed.