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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Exploring Child Abuse

The Australian Government announcement of an inquiry at the national level through the establishment of a royal commission into child abuse caught many of us by surprise. In case anyone has been hiding in the middle of the Simpson desert since then, here's an update with links to some of the more thoughtful commentary and a couple of early questions about the problems about the conduct of such an exercise.

It will probe a wide range of organisations from the Catholic Church and other religious organisations, through state authorities to the Scouts and sports groups. There is an ecumenical openness here that tries to ensure that the exercise is not and is not perceived to be a sectarian affair. The question has also been raised as to whether the terms of reference will include allegations relating to minors in the Australian Defence forces and refugees in care. 

The inquiry into institutional responses to abuse will not just deal with instances of abuse, but will also explore how institutions responded, or failed to respond to reports of abuse and will also look at how the police have responded to the problem. The Government is currently drawing up a detailed terms of reference for the inquiry and making decisions on its timeframe, resourcing and the identity of the Royal Commissioner, or Commissioners. Given the potential scope of the inquiry they may well have difficulty getting people to agree to participate. It will take a strong sense of vocation to commit yourself to an inquiry that may well run for at least five years.

Commentators have suggested that the likely scope of the inquiry will be similar to that of the inquiry in Ireland that ran for over nine years. While a Royal Commission is inquisitorial in character and has wide-ranging powers, it will report back to government with findings that set out what it has established about the extent and character of child abuse, as well as making recommendations to address the problems that it has explored.

Its truth seeking and policy recommending functions are central to the Commission’s character and activities. The commission has no judicial functions, however and any criminal activity that it identifies will need to be referred to the police for investigation and prosecution.

The announcement has attracted a good deal of comment from a variety of interested groups. See the links at the Age:

The previous experience of such inquiries in Australia has raised concern about whether the expectations of victims and their families might not be realistic. While there is a feeling of encouragement by victims that the truth will be established and the reality of their experience, long denied, will now be made public, there is also frequent referral to justice and healing being achieved. This may be more than the Commission can achieve. There are some previous inquiries of a similar character that suggest the need for a more tempered set of expectations.

The Stolen Generation inquiry, achieved some success in its truth revealing function, in creating a much wider community awareness of what had happened, in re-restablishing family connections and in going some way to address outstanding policy issues in the child protection services. It did little, however, to address the issue of justice and compensation for those affected. There have been very few successful court cases for compensation by victims of the policy of removal of indigenous children from their families, despite the Inquiry’s report.

The former Royal Commissioner for Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, for example, has cautioned on the need for care in the terms of reference and for a realistic expectation about the extent to which the Commission can deal with individual cases. He is certainly in a position to comment on this issue.

The background to the establishment of this inquiry has been a long running series of court cases against priests and staff in Catholic institutions and a widespread perception that there has been a greater concern by institutions with their reputation than in addressing the complaints raised by the victims. In a helpful account Jack Waterford, editor at large for the Canberra Times, has pointed out that the issues faced by the Catholic Church in Australia with respect to child sexual abuse, are parallel in timing and character to those identified in research into the experience of the church in both Ireland and the United States. He has also expressed the view that the Commission might reveal that other significant institutions in Australia have failed in their responsibilities in dealing with instances of child abuse that has so far been hidden by the focus on the Catholic Church’s failures. The failures may have as much to do with the extent to which evil can be embedded in institutions as much as it can be found in the actions of individuals.

While Cardinal Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, has so far displayed a somewhat pugnacious defensiveness in his acceptance of the establishment of the Commission, other clerical leaders have displayed a more thoughtful response driven by compassion and a willingness to deal openly with the Church’s failures. Stephen Crittenden suggests the issue for the Catholic Church relates to a failure of leadership.

This is going to be a long painful journey for many, not only for the victims, though they must be first in our considerations. There will be a need for confession by and healing of the perpetrators, as well as for those managers and leaders in institutions who put the reputation of the institution ahead of the cry for justice by the most vulnerable and who according to Jesus had the greatest claim for judgement to fall on us if we cause these "little ones to stumble".

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