THE federal government's commitment to a royal commission on child abuse, and the Coalition's support of it, are welcome. Nonetheless, as they say, the devil is in the detail.
The scope of the commission may be critical to its success or otherwise. The government needs not only to be seen to be doing something but to actually achieve something.
The terms of reference therefore need to ensure the commission can effectively complete its task. Terms that fail to demand a sharp focus might result in many stories being told but little being achieved to protect children.
The commission should not be a field day for lawyers holding out the carrot of compensation. The states generally provide the avenues for complaints of abuse to be heard and if they have been inadequate, the states should confront that.
What seems to have started the move to a royal commission was the public airing by a police officer of his view that there was much evidence of systemic cover-up within the Catholic Church. Quite appropriately the Prime Minister has said the commission will look at institutional abuse across the board and not restrict itself to the Catholic Church. But it should restrict itself to cover-ups. At least in that way there will be a defined task and a foreseeable finish.
The PM is right to say the commission should not have an arbitrarily created deadline. But it would be wrong to give it such a broad brief that the wronged and the public lose faith in there ever being a conclusion.
Focusing on the cover-ups is also tackling the highest priority. After all, the only crime that can be more heinous than abusing a child is covering up the abuse of others.
Those who abuse children presumably have thoughts, urges or desires that are different from most of us. That doesn't absolve them or mitigate their crime in any way. All it does is explain why they do it. But those who cover it up have no such explanation for their disgraceful deeds. By turning a blind eye and, even worse, actively covering up they are in my view as morally culpable as the child molester. They allow the perpetrator to go on and find new victims. Equally as bad, they send messages to others that it is acceptable to turn a blind eye, and to potential perpetrators that they can get away with it.
When you keep in effect condoning something, you end up in practice consenting to it. So those who turn a blind eye or help to cover up abuse establish a culture of consent to one of the most evil crimes imaginable. If all we do is stop the culture of consent in institutions, we will have achieved something worthwhile.
Nobody, be they priest, nun, teacher, administrator or public servant, who has ever played a part in a cover-up should sleep comfortably. They should all be anticipating that the commission will catch up with them and the truth will come out. Hopefully they are dreading the day when we will all know what they did and they will be shamed.
In terms of penalties, whatever we have now clearly isn't a sufficient deterrent. We have registers of sex offenders, but why not a register of those who have helped cover it up? While we are at it, let's make it a public register. If their duplicity became public, perhaps the board members of a few private schools might find their other corporate opportunities were somewhat limited. And so they should be.
We should ask a select committee to look at whether there needs to be new offences and revised penalties. The states should pass legislation to make it simply not worth the risk for anyone to cover up or turn a blind eye to the abuse of children.
Anything is worth a try. Decent jail terms and a life ban on ever working in that field again would be good starting points. These people collude to let another person ruin a child's life; we should have no sympathy.
Nor should we take too much comfort from the commission's existence. In 2010, most (52 per cent) of offenders in sexual assault against children under nine were family members.
If we wanted to list areas where governments have failed, child abuse would have to be the most prominent. Clearly we have failed too many children. And it is not just the woeful response to abused children, but our incapacity to find ways to stop it happening. This is not a Liberal/Labor thing. No one has found the answers.
I hope this commission keeps focused on those who help build a culture of consent. I also hope it doesn't unwittingly lull policymakers into thinking they should step back until the commission's work is done. On the contrary, it should give policymakers a renewed enthusiasm for tackling child abuse in the home, in institutions or wherever. The commission can deal with the cover-up.
Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.