Betrayed: Tony Nolan added his name and face to his story to encourage other abuse victims to come forward. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Brace, brace, brace.
As the royal commission on child sexual abuse starts public hearings, that's the warning from experts, victims and the commission itself.
The stories to come out at the commission chaired by NSW Judge of Appeal Peter McClellan will shake Australia to its soul.
There will be outrage, disbelief and anger nationwide. There will be lives and reputations broken, household-name institutions brought low, families torn apart, grief and pain in gut-wrenching abundance, apologies galore.
We will learn that what we trusted was not to be trusted. That children who should have been safe were not. That what we thought was an aberration confined to a few sick individuals was - is - widespread.
We will learn that child sexual abuse happens not just in churches but wherever adults come into contact with children, from charities to daycare to sports camps, but especially in residential settings such as boarding schools and hostels. (It most often happens in families, but they are outside the commission's terms of reference.)
We'll hear that it spans fiddling and fondling (common) to violent, penetrative rape, even of little children (rarer). And the "monsters" are seemingly ordinary people, just like us.
Many of the stories will relate to events long ago. But it's also clear from victim accounts in private sessions held around the country since May, that "this isn't as in the past as people might expect", says commission chief executive Janette Dines.
"We will face hearing stories which will shock us, which are evil in every sense of the word," says Patrick Parkinson, a law professor at the University of Sydney, a witness to the commission and author of a book on child sexual abuse in churches.
Like him, we will all soon be "living day by day with the shock of, 'How could this have happened?', and 'How could these institutions have responded in the way that they did?'"
At a university seminar earlier this year, Parkinson recounted how it took him weeks, perhaps months, to recover after one weekend in Newcastle listening to three victims' accounts of their sexual abuse for his research. "The anger and the pain, 30 years after the events, is so raw,'' he says.
Tony Nolan lives with it, now more than ever. In June, he told Fairfax Media anonymously of being abused as a teenager in the 1970s at the NSW government's Pallister residential centre for young people with learning and behavioural difficulties in Greenwich, on Sydney's lower north shore.
His alleged abuser, director and head counsellor Allan Huggins, made him lie on the floor to be inspected for "genital deformities" which might supposedly be linked to his learning issues. Nolan says Huggins instructed him to masturbate privately to orgasm every day, and wanted to hear all the details of how this was done.
After years of confusion and grief over issues of trust, authority, intimacy and sexuality, Nolan, now 50, went on to put together a successful life as a government intelligence analyst, mentor of gifted children, volunteer worker, husband and father. He has an Order of Australia medal.
He was relieved to have done his bit after handing over relevant documents and telling his story to the royal commission on the first day of private sessions in Sydney in May. But his gravest fears have since been realised.
Nolan is now adding his name and face to his story to encourage other victims to come forward. That's because, in what is believed to be the first case of charges being laid since a matter was presented to the commission, his alleged abuser is facing court in Western Australia.
Huggins faces multiple counts of child sexual assault involving six boys aged from 11 to 17 over a single year, 1990-91, in the course of his work with troubled youth at a school and a psychotherapy clinic.
The court heard that further charges were expected to take the number of victims to 20 or more. Since a police hotline was set up (1800 552 203), more victims have come forward, including at Armidale, where Huggins was master of a university residential college, and part-time counsellor to O'Connor Catholic High School and boys at The Armidale School for boarders and day pupils in the late 1970s and '80s.
The alleged abuser is thought to have worked across four states, although police now believe some of the employers and qualifications on his published CV do not exist. They believe Nolan is among his early victims, that his offences escalated over time, and that he continued to offend over three decades until his arrest.
That idea is crushing to Nolan and calls into question the 2008 letter of apology he received after complaining to the Australian Counselling Association, in which Huggins claimed his behaviour at the time was related to particular personal circumstances and did not continue.
"Let's face it, compared to some of the other victims of sexual assault, what happened to me does not even count,'' Nolan says. (The commission, though, wants it known that even "mild" cases of being "interfered with" as a child can cause serious psychological damage with long-lasting consequences.)
But he feels "a lot of anger and disappointment in the system. I feel sad for the other victims. For me, it is like survivor's guilt''.
The Huggins case illustrates what might lie in store as the commission gathers steam.
Was Nolan the only one to complain over those three decades? Did any of the hundreds of health and education professionals who must have come into contact with Huggins in that time suspect or report his behaviour? Was anything done to stop him and help victims? What systemic failures allowed the offending to occur and recur, and what changes can be made to safeguard children against such abuses in the future?
These are the kinds of questions the commission seeks to answer as it sifts through the thousands of cases coming before it. Its call centre has been taking an average of 23 calls a day, adding up to more than 4300 by the end of last month.
Managing the workload, and victims' expectations, is an onerous challenge, as similar inquiries in Ireland, Britain, the US and Canada as well as the dolorous roll call of Australian inquiries (more than one a year on average for the past 25 years) have demonstrated.
Even with a budget of $320 million over three years, only a fraction of cases will be aired at the royal commission public hearings, which would otherwise take decades.
In Ireland, a flood of allegations since the late 1990s about child sexual abuse by Catholic priests proved too great for the four separate inquiries set up to investigate. The Ryan inquiry, the largest of them, had to change its remit so that of the 200-plus institutions about which it received complaints, only those with more than 20 complaints were investigated. Even so, the inquiry took nine years.
The Murphy inquiry into the Dublin diocese was limited to a statistically representative sample of 46 out of 172 cases, Judge Yvonne Murphy, who chaired the commission, explained on a visit to Sydney earlier this year.
Indications to date are that public hearings in Australia will focus on clusters of cases, systemic issues and policy matters. They may lean towards comparatively recent matters except where older cases establish a long pattern or institutional culture.
Public hearings will be episodic - a few weeks of headlines on one topic in one place, followed by weeks or months of relative quiet as confidential private sessions continue concurrently in different states, then a further burst of headlines from public hearings on another matter somewhere new. Best estimates are the commission will last five to 10 years.
At the first public hearing, to be held at the commission's specially refurbished headquarters in Farrer Place, Sydney, senior counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness, SC, will seek to establish what went on within and between Scouts Australia, the NSW Department of Community Services and Hunter Aboriginal Children's Services, which allowed the since-convicted child sex offender Steven Larkins to forge a document in 2004 saying he had been cleared to work unsupervised with children. As head of the non-profit Hunter services for almost a decade, he then gained parental supervision of 19 Aboriginal children, despite having been investigated by police on suspicion of sexually abusing boy scouts in the early 1990s. The hearing is scheduled to last a week.
Under the commission's rules, the information gathered in informal private sessions that last about an hour per person do not become evidence in public hearings without the person's permission. By contrast, evidence at formal public hearings is given under oath and subject to cross-examination.
The commission is also calling for submissions on selected issues - so far including the Catholic Church's Towards Healing process, Working with Children Checks, child safe organisations and preventing child sexual abuse in out-of-home care.
A national redress scheme, the handling of child sexual abuse by the criminal justice system, and the results of past inquiries are among other topics likely to be considered. Round tables, seminars and an extensive program of research will feed into the report findings and recommendations. The recommendations and results of about 40 past inquiries identified as relevant to the commission's work are also "fertile ground" for commission hearings, Dines says.
Parkinson, whose voice was prominent in calling for the royal commission, says it was needed so institutions could gain a "sense of closure, a point at which we [can] say this terrible history is finished, the secrets are out", and move on.
John Ellis, a solicitor who was abused by a Catholic priest at Bass Hill parish in Sydney from his early teenage years and has since acted for victims in more than 200 cases, says the issue of compensation is likely to be far from the minds of victims coming forward for the first time to the royal commission.
Until their experiences are acknowledged and the institutions held accountable, it is common for them to blame themselves, he says. They want to know that retelling their stories counts towards stopping such things from happening to more children.
"There is going to be a lot of pain in all this and we don't really want to hear how widespread it is,'' he says.
"People don't want to know that people in high office knew what was happening."
But if victims "have the opportunity to stand in their own truth, to have that truth respected, listened to and validated, and have accountability lie where it should, that is what will transform a class of victims into a class of survivors'', Ellis says.
The commissioners: who they are
Bob Atkinson was Queensland police commissioner from 2000 until last October. A policeman for 44 years, he served from Goondiwindi to Cairns, was a detective and prosecutor, and oversaw police reforms after government inquiries.
Professor Helen Milroy is director of the centre for Aboriginal medical and dental health at the University of Western Australia. A descendant of the Palyku people of the Pilbara, she is a psychiatrist who focuses on child wellbeing.
Justice Peter McClellan was chief judge of the NSW Supreme Court, and an appeals judge. He has also been chief judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court, assistant commissioner at the Independent Commission Against Corruption and chaired the Sydney Water inquiry.
Business expert Robert Fitzgerald has been a member of the Productivity Commission since 2004, and convener of its indigenous disadvantage working group. A former NSW deputy ombudsman, his experience covers commerce, law, public policy and community services.
Justice Jennifer Coate is a judge of the Family Court of Australia, former Victorian County Court judge and former Victorian coroner. While president of the Children’s Court of Victoria she helped set up the Children’s Koori Court. She has been a law reform commissioner, a legal aid solicitor and in private practice.
Rhodes Scholar Andrew Murray was a senator for Western Australia from 1996 to 2008, representing the Democrats. He has long advocated on behalf of institutionalised children. He has run his own business and been involved with many community organisations.