The power of institutions must never again be allowed to silence a child nor must it be allowed to diminish the preparedness or capacity of adults to act to protect children.
That was one of the key messages delivered by the Chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Justice Peter McClellan, to the 14th Triennial Assembly of the Uniting Church.
Justice McClellan, speaking to a hushed gathering, said the tragic personal stories and institutional failures revealed by the Commission’s public hearings to date would serve as an important reminder that both individual institutions and governments had failed in their responsibility for children.
“Where once silence was demanded, a child’s complaint, however tentative in its communication, must be heard and given an appropriate response,” he said.
“Whatever the nature of the institution and however its members are respected by the community, we must all accept that there may be members of trusted institutions who fail in their duty towards children.”
Justice McClellan said Commissioners sometimes heard stories of people who, despite traumatic childhood experiences, had not lost their capacity to love and care for others.
“We have witnessed humour and ingenuity among survivors. But we have also seen profound sorrow, grief and pain that for many may never go away,” he said.
Justice McClellan confirmed that the Commission would conclude at the end of next year. It was still averaging about 50 applications a week for private sessions.
He also said:
• The Royal Commission has, so far, received 13,256 allegations within its terms of reference. Of these, 399 were in respect of abuse by members of Uniting Church institutions, representing about 3 per cent of the total figure.
• A further 106 allegations have been received in respect of abuse by members of Presbyterian Church institutions and 62 in respect of abuse by members of Methodist Church institutions, the majority of which relate to incidents before 1977.
Of the 399 allegations against members of Uniting Church institutions, 173 relate to institutions involved in out-of-home care and a further 164 relate to boarding schools.
The Uniting Church institution with the highest number of allegations is Sydney’s Knox Grammar School with 137 allegations. Knox was the subject of a public hearing of the Royal Commission in February this year.
In total, the Commission has received allegations in relation to 132 institutions which were either Uniting Church, Presbyterian or Methodist institutions.
Justice McClellan said the Commission’s report on Redress and Civil Litigation will be handed to the Federal Government by the end of August, the Commission will report on sentencing in child sexual abuse in institutional contexts and on Working with Children Checks shortly.
He said for many victims their only opportunity for justice will be through an effective redress scheme.
But, the issue of redress raised a range of complex questions including who should be eligible, how a scheme should be funded, who should manage it and what benefits should it provide?
“For redress to be effective it must respond to the ongoing needs of survivors. It is clear that survivors need an apology from the institution. There must also be funding for counselling and psychological care.”
“A money sum which adequately recognises the wrong done to the individual is also essential.
“It is now accepted that abuse can impact a survivor’s personal development in a number of ways. It can affect an individual’s ability to complete their education, to maintain a job and to establish personal relationships.”
Justice McClellan said a monetary payment by the institution concerned could serve the dual purposes of recognising the harm suffered by the survivor, as well as providing financial assistance to the many people who, as a result of their abuse, are struggling to secure the basics of life.
He said almost all institutions and survivor groups favoured a national scheme administered by the Commonwealth but funded by the relevant institutions, including the various governments where institutional failures have occurred.
“This is self-evidently the approach which will meet the objective of equal justice for survivors.”
He said Working with Children checks were one tool that helped to ensure the right people were selected to work with children.
“They have been considered in public hearings conducted by the Commission and have been a focus of investigation as part of our policy and research program. “
“This is the first step in the development of comprehensive recommendations designed to create a safe environment for children in an institution.”
Justice McClellan said it was obvious that when the Commission’s work was completed it will have documented a period in Australian society when institutions failed the children in their care.
“I do not mean to condemn every institution. It is clear that many were managed and sustained by the efforts of both volunteers and paid workers who understood how to manage an institution that provides for the welfare of children,” he said.
“But even then we can recognise that many well-intentioned people did not understand and did not respond to failures which should have been obvious in the institutions of which they were part.
“Although the primary responsibility for the sexual abuse of an individual lies with the abuser and the institution of which they were part, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the problems faced by many people who have been abused are the responsibility of our entire society.”
Speaking in response to the speech by Justice McClellan, UCA President Stuart McMillan reaffirmed the church’s commitment to supporting and assisting the survivors of sexual abuse within its care.
“Their wellbeing and the opportunity for those people to be afforded justice, healing and perhaps with time some reconciliation is our utmost concern,” Mr McMillan said.
Mr McMillan said Jesus – “who is the one that we are the followers of” – called children to himself, acting in a way other members of his society did not with respect to children.
“His Honour has outlined the changes in our society over a period in time when children were not to be seen or heard which allowed them to be quite vulnerable.
Mr McMillan said the Church would continue to engage constructively with the Royal Commission and looked forward to the Commission’s final report.
At the conclusion of Justice McClellan’s presentation, members of Assembly stood for a minute’s silence in tribute to all of those affected by child sexual abuse.