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Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

I spoke in parliament today on a bill enabling the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Royal Commissions Amendment Bill, 13 March 2013

As previous speakers on the Royal Commissions Amendment Bill 2013 have noted, child sexual abuse is one of the hardest topics to speak about, particularly for those of us in this place who are parents. An account by Patricia Feenan titled Holy Hell gives some sense of the scale of the trauma. Ms Feenan writes about the abuse which occurred to her son Daniel which was perpetrated by their local parish priest, Father Fletcher. She writes:

‘Father Fletcher visited our family a lot and we were very active in his church. John’ — her husband— ‘did his accounts and I did everything from sewing the buttons onto his black shirts to taking communion to the elderly. He took a particular interest in Daniel, recruiting him as an altar server. People were always drawn to Daniel. He had a sweet nature, an angelic face and shining eyes.’

And then she writes about how, when Daniel was 14, his behaviour started to change. He started binge drinking. He was arrested for drunk driving. Then one day the two of them argued when he was drunk. He walked out and she followed. She found him on a trailer beside the tractor with a noose around his neck. As Patricia screamed, Daniel jumped.

She supported his weight until somebody else came, and then, wanting to help him, called Father Fletcher. Father Fletcher told Patricia to send Daniel over to see him, saying he could spend the night there. Of course, Daniel returned more distressed than ever.

Eventually, they found out that it was Father Fletcher who had been perpetrating the abuse on Daniel, and then, finally, when asked why he did not go to the police earlier, Daniel said: ‘Because it started when I was 12.’ Apparently, the abuse that Daniel suffered was so distressing that an employee of the Department of Public Prosecutions asked to be taken off the case. Patricia talked about weeping bitter tears when hearing what had happened to Daniel, about the harm that had been perpetrated on him and the pain and the indignity that he had suffered.

Other victims eventually came forward when the case went to trial in 2004, one because Fletcher asked the family for a character reference. When Fletcher finally suffered a stroke and died in 2006, his funeral was attended by 34 priests. Patricia’s story is a reminder of how horrendous these crimes are that the Royal Commission will be investigating.

To give another account, Albert John Abel, a perpetrator of child sexual abuse, was sentenced to three years imprisonment after attacking a 12-year-old boy in the Charlton Boys Home in Glebe. He was working at the boys’ home run by the Anglican Church and had begun abusing his victim in 1959 and continued over subsequent years.

There were some insights provided into how child sexual abuse can occur in institutions through the ‘Forgotten Australians’ exhibition, known as Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions, which ran at the National Museum of Australia. I was fortunate to be taken through that exhibition by Hugh McGowan, one of the forgotten Australians. He ended up in institutional care after being born to a single mother in Scotland. She gave him up to a boys’ home in Glasgow. He said one day the children were asked if they wanted to go to Australia. Hugh was 12 at the time and he initially agreed, but then he changed his mind and told the man known as the ‘cottage father’ in Glasgow that he did not want to go. He says he still remembers the reply: ‘Too bad; you’re going.’ Hugh told me that there was a lack of warmth. There was tough physical labour, corporal punishment and sometimes even sexual abuse, though he himself was fortunate to escape that. And he said that the worst of it was that, even at the harshest of times, there was never a father to gently put his arms around you.

There were videos in that exhibition of young children at Bindoon in Western Australia doing dangerous jobs like blacksmithing and tiling. A hand-drawn map of the layout of Bentleigh Children’s Home in Victoria showed red crosses where terrified children would hide to avoid abuse. An official sign from another home told visitors that they were not to hold the babies.

Ryszard Szablicki says that, some time after he left the Melbourne orphanage where he grew up: ‘I heard people standing singing around a cake that had candles stuck in it. I did not even know what was going on.’ He did not know what a birthday cake and birthday candles were because, as another boy said of the institutions, only ‘intermittent humanity was provided’.

As then Prime Minister Rudd said in 2009 when he offered a national apology to the forgotten Australians:

‘… whatever I might say today, the truth is, I cannot give you back your childhood. … But what I can do with you is to celebrate the spirit that has lived within you over the decades.’

This inquiry, which also follows on from the 2004 Senate inquiry into the Forgotten Australians and the 1999 Forde inquiry into institutionalised abuse, will provide an opportunity for victims of institutionalised sexual abuse to tell their stories.

The Royal Commission will have an extraordinarily tough job ahead of it. But I am confident that the commissioners who have been chosen will do a first-rate job. It will be led by Justice Peter McClellan, who chaired the Sydney water inquiry and worked on the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia. Other commissioners include: Bob Atkinson, the former Queensland police commissioner; Justice Jennifer Coate, who has served as a magistrate and County Court judge in Victoria, including for five years as President of the Children’s Court; Robert Fitzgerald, who has served as a commissioner for the Productivity Commission and has expertise on commerce, law, public policy and community services; Professor Helen Milroy, a consultant psychiatrist with experience in child and adolescent health; and former Western Australian senator Andrew Murray, who brings tremendous experience as a member of these key Senate inquiries into children’s experiences in institutional care.

The bill has two main purposes. The first is to enable the president or chair to authorise one or more members to hold a hearing, and that will allow for more efficient distribution of work between commissioners where it is appropriate to do that. These will be authorised member hearings. Evidence taken of this kind will form part of evidence for the inquiry as a whole and it will allow the inquiry to take more evidence than would otherwise be possible.

The second main purpose of the bill is to introduce measures that will facilitate people directly or indirectly affected by child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts to present their account to a commissioner in a setting that is less formal. The bill refers to this as a ‘private session’. It is important that those affected by child sexual abuse can share their experiences in appropriate ways, recognising the trauma and the special support needs that are required.

This is of a piece with courts having changed the way in which victims of sexual assault can give evidence. Recognising the trauma that sexual assault entails, to give evidence in a regular court is still a horrendous process that victims of sexual assault must go through but that process is better now than it was in decades gone by, thanks to changes that have been made in the judicial process. I regard the changes that this bill will make to the Royal Commissions Act as being of a similar nature.

In closing, it is difficult to speak of child sexual abuse without acknowledging the issues around suicide. In the context of those who might be listening to this debate, and recognising the trauma that is entailed in this, I thought it would be appropriate to acknowledge the work done by Lifeline Canberra, and particularly the work that has been done by their marketing manager, Matt Heffernan, in putting together this weekend’s Lifeline Canberra Bookfair. Lifeline Canberra has been operating in the ACT since 1971 and the book fair is their major fundraising drive. This weekend, the jewel in their sales will be a first edition of Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, which I am sure the Treasurer will be greatly attracted to. Lifeline is also supported by a range of generous sponsors: The Good Guys in Canberra, FM104.7, FM106.3, Leader Security, Canberra Cavalry, SERVICE ONE Members Banking and Tidy Temple Yoga. They meet significant needs—Mr Heffernan informs me the number of calls to Lifeline Canberra is up 58 per cent over the past year—and so it is important that they receive strong community support.

Like many other members I am wearing a Lifeline badge today, recognising the national body’s 50th anniversary today. It is possible, as we have a substantial community conversation about institutional child sexual abuse, that will prompt further calls on social service agencies over the course of the coming years. I am sure Lifeline will be ready to step in, but we too need to be ready to support it. I commend the bill to the House.

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