Broken Rights Australia conducts a vigil outside Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral to remember clergy abuse victims.

Broken Rights Australia conducts a vigil outside Melbourne's St Patrick's Cathedral to remember clergy abuse victims. Photo: Pat Scala

After decades of desperate struggle to have the world take them seriously, survivors of child sexual abuse by clergy are beginning to live, in the words of survivor and advocate Peter Blenkiron, in a fragile ''bubble of hope''.

Blenkiron is the spokesman for a group of about 40 survivors in Ballarat, a city where another 40 or so victims have already taken their own lives. What has given them this cautious sliver of optimism is being heard by people who can change things.

Since November the Victorian government has been running an inquiry that has given many victims a voice. In NSW, one inquiry has recently examined church behaviour about abuse complaints and another will start in May. The most important - the long-sought royal commission - begins in Melbourne on Wednesday.

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Although many survivors recover to lead fulfilling lives, many others are walking a tightrope just to get through each day, their potential paralysed and hopes stolen because of events decades earlier, events that were beyond their control. ''The abusers are soul destroyers,'' one victim said recently.

So Blenkiron was irked by a recent letter in his local paper, the Ballarat Courier, suggesting that victims' chief concern was financial compensation.

''You'd get more if you fell over in the supermarket,'' he says. ''The reality is it's not the child's fault we were abused and raped. No one wants to suffer complex post-trauma stress disorder. You try to harden up, tell yourself, 'Don't be a weak prick', but it makes it worse.

''You can't get out of bed, and end up in that dark spot where you think everybody is better off without you, and the only way out is suicide.

''At present we are living in a bubble of hope but if we get through the inquiries and there is no outcome, the bubble will burst and there will be more suicides.''

That knowledge means the stakes are high for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which has its first public hearing on Wednesday at Melbourne's County Court. How many of people's expectations can it meet? What can it realistically hope to achieve, and what are the main issues it must tackle?

According to federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus this will be the most far-reaching of any royal commission held in Australia.

''It is a very, very significant undertaking, to shine a light on injustices that occurred when the most vulnerable people in society should have been protected,'' he said.

''It will recommend improvements in laws, policies and practices to prevent it happening in future. But it's not a court proceeding - it won't find guilt or make convictions.''

Now, nearly five months after the royal commission was announced with great fanfare by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, we will find out how it will actually work. The chairman, Justice Peter McClellan, and senior counsel Gail Furness, QC, will give detailed statements.

The biggest problem, including for the commissioners and staff, is just how much is not yet known , including how many people will want to make submissions or be heard in person, the links between formal and informal evidence, the time the inquiry will need, how it will balance the contradictory demands of thoroughness and speed, and what sort of use it will make of evidence and conclusions from other investigations, such as the Victorian inquiry.

Dreyfus, who as a barrister has worked on three royal commissions, warns they are difficult to manage and says it is hard to predict how long they will take and what they will conclude.

''We need to ensure that it's a thorough investigation, but the Australian people won't be served by an inquiry that takes as many years as in Ireland [nine],'' he says. The government has asked for an interim report by June 30 next year so it can act on early findings and recommendations.

The inquiry has six commissioners - more than any previous royal commission - who will be empowered by new legislation to hold hearings before a single commissioner or in any combination of commissioners, and also in private. It is understood that for the first five months commissioners will hold private sessions where victims can tell their stories in a less formal setting.

A commission spokesman said this would involve ''no evidence under oath, just a chance to tell their story. That will be one or two commissioners each time, which will certainly inform them about the length and breadth of the problem. There will be legal people there. All this is still building, and there's a lot of uncharted territory.''

The commission has about 40 staff so far, but a ''significant'' round of recruitment about to begin in the next fortnight will take the total past 100. It needs administrators, lawyers, IT specialists, counsellors, office and support staff, plus an investigation unit made up of people such as former police.

An obvious problem for the commission will be how to manage public expectations. As one experienced observer noted, ''When Julia Gillard announced the commission she created massive expectations that every kind of abuse in all situations would be explored. That was never going to be sustainable. So [then-attorney general Nicola] Roxon had to reduce it to some kind of order.'' The result, he suggests, is a body doing on a national scale what the parliamentary inquiry is doing in Victoria.

''The question is, what are you really looking for? We know there's abuse, we've got good information across the country about how it's been handled - most of that is non-controversial now.

''The church itself accepts there's stuff. It says, 'We didn't understand.' The question is, did they? Did they conceal it because they did understand? How do you not know that it's both a sin and illegal to bugger a child?''

Victims certainly ask that question. What victims want is remarkably consistent. First they want the truth to emerge, they want their stories to be heard and the real, personal dimension acknowledged. Second, they want to make sure it doesn't happen again, they want better safeguards and checks. Third, they want the perpetrators and those who concealed these acts held to account.

Compensation is well down the list. Some see it as important - to provide material comfort they have been denied and because they think it is the only penalty the church will be required to accept, and therefore will be at least a limited acknowledgment by the church that it has failed victims of abuse. Others see it as tainted money, and want no part of it.

So victims' expectations are that they will be heard, there will be law reform, and there will be prosecutions, and perhaps a system of redress.

Most of the legal reform the commission is likely to consider involves state rather than federal laws, but Mark Dreyfus is unconcerned because, in another unusual development, this is a joint state-federal commission to ensure a co-ordinated national approach.

Seven areas of legislation stand out, according to victims' advocates. First, there must be laws to enable the church to be sued. At present, the Catholic Church relies on the so-called Ellis defence, that there is no entity known as ''the church'' that can be sued; that its assets are held in property trusts that are not liable.

Next, the statute of limitations in civil cases must be extended, because victims often take decades before they can acknowledge what happened to them and seek redress.

Also, concealment of child sex abuse has to become an explicit crime through uniform national laws, rather than the common-law category it comes under now in many states.

There must be mandatory reporting: it must be a criminal offence for church officials not to report realistic suspicions to police - and not just to welfare departments, as doctors and teachers must do.

Under corporations law, business CEOs are legally liable for decisions of their predecessors, but at present bishops and archbishops are not legally accountable for actions of earlier bishops. This must be changed.

Then there is the matter of vicarious liability, whereby an employer can be sued over actions by an employee. But two elements have to be established: that there is an employer-employee relationship and negligence and that the failure is in the course of their employment.

Negligence has not applied in sex offences by priests, or teachers, because the offending has not been seen as part of their employment, but this has recently changed in Canada and Britain, where two archdioceses have been sued.

Finally, victim advocates are near-unanimous that the church's abuse protocols, Towards Healing and the Melbourne Response, must be shut down and replaced with a federal redress scheme, paid by the church but run by the state.

Here, according to lawyer and advocate Judy Courtin, the experience of Ireland must be heeded. In that country the church agreed to such a scheme, but ''it turns out they only paid 10 per cent and claimed to be bankrupt and unable to pay any more. So the taxpayer is funding 90 per cent of the redress scheme,'' she says.

Another issue Courtin identifies is access to the legal system. ''Many victims can't sue. Criminal justice is difficult, with very low conviction rates and very high appeal rates when there is a conviction. Whatever victims do, they meet brick walls. The royal commission has to give victims equal access to the law.''

Another vital matter, Courtin says, concerns suicides, where coroners necessarily work case by case and common links are not addressed. ''In Ballarat, where we have 40 suicides, if the coroner looked at those cases again and found the common element, that would be a powerful finding. These cases need to be re-examined.''

The terms of reference are broadly conceived, but everyone knows the commission will mostly be about the Catholic Church. Certainly that is what the church thinks, and why it appointed a lay-led Truth, Justice and Healing Council to liaise with the inquiry and advise the church.

One development victims' groups want that will certainly improve the church's standing is to fund care and compensation.

Peter Blenkiron's Ballarat group proposed to the Victorian inquiry that a ''gold card'' similar to that given to Vietnam veterans be set up to ensure that survivors unable to function because of post-trauma stress disorder or depression do not always remain at the back of the line for public health and other benefits.

They want it to operate like the proposed compensation fund - a church-funded, state-run national system covering day-to-day needs.

''It's only a 50-year problem, at most,'' says Blenkiron. ''The people suffering today, we'll all be gone in 50 years, probably less.''

Barney Zwartz is religion editor.