The royal commission investigating what happened when there was sexual abuse of children in institutions is well positioned to help close a terrible chapter of Australian life, one that probably began soon after the development of child welfare institutions in 1788.
It can do this by shining a light on what has happened in the past, in the process acknowledging, affirming and vindicating many of the thousands of victims of child sexual abuse whose sufferings continue. Both are necessary if we are to achieve the main purpose – of helping to establish new ways by which abuse is made less likely to occur, more likely to be discovered and punished, and with a far greater focus on the needs and rights of the victims.
The commission is especially to examine the administrative and institutional responses of the large number of organisations given control over children, with an obligation to protect those children from abuse, and which, in so many cases, appear to have failed. Failed to prevent abuse, failed to develop practices and procedures which reduced the risk to children, to establish systems by which victims could complain, or systems by which those accused of, or suspected of, abuse were removed from their proximity to potential victims. But they failed also to properly investigate complaints, to put the interests of children first, or to address trauma, injury and hurt, spread over whole lifetimes.
In many cases, the wickedness of the abuse was compounded by extra abuse of power, because those responsible for the abuse, or those responsible for the abusers, had particular religious and moral obligations to the victims.
It is important to see the public informed of the scale of abuse, and the scale of the breaches of trust, whether in state or religious institutions, or in hundreds of sporting, social and cultural institutions. But this is not a commission designed to play the avenging angel for each individual case of assault, nor is it there merely to document the names of individuals or bodies against whom allegations are made.
It cannot possibly, within any reasonable period of time, investigate each allegation. Nor can it even hope to get a true picture of the actual extent of sexual abuse: its remit covers only about 5 per cent of the cases of sexual abuse. Most abuse occurs inside the victim’s clan, or at the hands of people with ready access to the homes of the victims.
No doubt, as the letters patent of this inquiry say, some of the ways we could reduce institutional abuse could extend more widely, but the six commissioners will have their hands full even with their window into the problem. Likewise, the particular focus they are to have – on how the systems responded and should respond in future – is directed at future good policy and practice, something far more important than mere allocation of blame, or determination of where, under the cliff, the ambulances should be parked.
The lead-up to the inquiry has put most attention to the abuse of children within schools and other bodies run by religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church. The church, whose leading officials have promised close co-operation with the inquiry, has come under attack not only for the scale of alleged abuse, but for a long-term failure to appreciate its seriousness, to establish proper protocols designed to protect victims, and for an appearance of embattled and suspicious bishops acting more to protect church assets against negligence claims than for reaching out to assist victims. Most think its responses have improved, if only from the torrent of criticism.
A somewhat similar pattern by other churches, by state institutions and community bodies, has not had as much critical attention, but it can be expected that the commissioners will be as interested in systemic management failures and similar patterns running across institutions as they will be in particular facts about other institutions which either created cultures of abuse, or cultures of covering it up.
No doubt they will look also at wider community cultures, asking just how it could be that public consciousness was for so many years so little addressed to the needs and the vulnerabilities of young children in the care of unrelated adults.
Some of those pretending ignorance will say simply that they trusted too much; there will be others who will wonder whether it was because society cared too little about its most poor and vulnerable. Perhaps a commission cannot make people care more, but it can create a more open, accountable and transparent environment in which abuse is more difficult to ignore.