Childhood betrayed can never be compensated
Illustration: John Spooner
PEOPLE who were sexually abused as children have waited a long time for the announcement of a royal commission. They have been waiting a long time to break down the walls of legal protection that their abusers have hidden behind so successfully, for so long.
In the mid-1990s I represented more than 250 men who, as children, were victims of sexual assault and abuse while in the care of the Catholic Church and the Christian Brothers Order.
We know that the predators within the Order colluded with each other to create a systemic network of abuse. They shared information about vulnerable children and worked together to suppress complaints.
When their activities became too overt church superiors stepped in, and moved them elsewhere within the Order. In doing so, authorities reduced the possibility that a paedophile might have been exposed, and they did nothing to prevent the continuing abuse.
I travelled to Western Australia to interview men who were residents of four Christian Brothers' institutions in that state.
These men, many of whom were orphans and child migrants, told stories of horrific physical and sexual abuse. They told stories of Brothers, who were meant to be caring for them, coming to their beds at night and performing the most obscene acts of abuse.
It didn't take long to realise that a pattern was emerging. Particular children were targeted because of their vulnerability - the quiet ones, the shy ones. These victims also reported the special privileges bestowed on them by the Brothers post-abuse - a bemusing thank-you for the unwitting loan of their bodies.
I remember at the end of a week of taking testimonies, my colleague Peter Gordon, eminent silk Jack Rush and I were speechless. We could not comprehend what we had heard. Abuse so horrific, with victims so completely helpless and, despite their number, so completely alone.
In those interviews, we also heard how children attempted to escape and how clean clothes were given out when state authorities came to visit and were then taken away as soon as they left.
We heard of vicious beatings for those with the courage to complain.
The Catholic Church and other church denominations occupy a unique position under Australian law. They enjoy the benefits of corporate status - for tax land purposes and perpetual succession of property - but avoid corporate tort liability for the very atrocities committed under their roof. A Catholic archbishop, unlike the heads of other organisations, cannot be held accountable for the negligent and reckless acts or omissions of their predecessor. How can this continue in modern Australia?
And it gets worse. There has rarely existed an opportunity for victims to seek redress against the Catholic Church because of statute-of-limitation laws that apply strict timelines for civil legal recourse. Even where provision exists for an extension of time, church authorities in the past have taken steps to transfer claims to states where no such legislative ''chance to be heard'' applies.
For this royal commission to make a difference it must consider these special protections. And, above all, it must recognise that abuse is not just the act of predators lurking in dormitories at night, but also those in some of the highest echelons of the church who have allowed such betrayal to happen.
The men I interviewed in the 1990s suffer a range of psychiatric and physiological disorders. Many of them cannot engage in any form of intimacy with their family members. Alcoholism, sexual dysfunction, self-harm and violence were common responses to what happened. For the few who were able to face up to their pasts, weekly counselling sessions were needed to try to overcome it.
In every case, legal action was not just about money. There is no adequate compensation for a lost childhood.
These men, each and every one of them, were seeking simple recognition by someone, some court or authority that these events actually occurred and that they were deeply wrong. Apologies from the perpetrators, or their superiors, play a critical role at these times.
Financial redress is important in the rebuilding process and, not least of all, when it comes to affording specialised medical help.
But, more than anything, what I heard from these men was that they wanted the truth to be acknowledged and they wanted this to never happen again. A royal commission can help with this.
Hayden Stephens is a lawyer with Slater & Gordon.