SIX days after Julia Gillard announced her sweeping - and rather ill-defined - royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse last November, law firms started circling victims for potential clients.
One newspaper advertisement read: "Royal Commission. Were you
sexually abused? You may have a claim. Register now - time limits
The government was not impressed, and made noises about
misleading advertising, given no compensation scheme had been announced,
but it was the author of its own predicament.
decision by the Prime Minister to announce the inquiry without any terms
of reference, structure, number of commissioners, length of time,
whether it would include a compensation scheme, have a forum for victims
or even have an investigatory arm left the doors wide open to all
Nobody knew what it would entail. The law firms seized on this
uncertainty, claiming they wanted to give "free legal advice for victims
of alleged abuse".
The lack of detail until yesterday also
raised the hopes and expectations of thousands of child abuse victims
who believed they might finally see some justice through this process.
government was swamped with more than 800 submissions addressing how
the commission should be structured. Many felt the time for framing the
terms of reference was too short.
Some worried that the
commission would be bogged down if it were to provide a forum for every
person who ever suffered sexual abuse in an institution.
others, such as Adults Surviving Child Abuse president Cathy Kezelman,
warned it was a crucial part of the process for victims to be heard.
said if the commission was not going to respond to individual cases,
the government "needs to confess up front so survivors have realistic
The government has sought to steer the best path
it can with a recommendation that the commission establish a separate
investigations unit to comb through potentially thousands of individual
cases and liaise with police.
Gillard says it is important that
the commission give individuals a chance to be heard. "Even if you felt
for all of your life that no one's listened to you ... the royal
commission is an opportunity for your voice to be heard."
says the commission will "have the capacity to support people as they go
through what will be a very, very difficult process of telling their
stories and, we hope, healing."
Another key point of contention
in the lead-up to yesterday's announcement was the scope of the
commission. Among the submissions the government received were many
calling for the commission to be extended beyond sexual abuse in
institutional care to other forms of institutional abuse and to
non-institutional settings for sexual abuse.
That push is being driven
by groups that mainly represent survivors of orphanages and state-run
children's homes, where residents were subject to child labour and
violence. They say it would be unacceptable to "exclude the suffering"
of victims of physical abuse and neglect.
This view has come from
the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect,
which says the commission could send a dangerous message "to other abuse
victims that their abuse was not as serious".
They argue that sexual
abuse was often accompanied by other forms of abuse in an institutional
setting and it would create an artificial divide if victims were stopped
from talking to the commission about all their experiences.
broadening the terms of reference was opposed by other groups, which
said it risked derailing the inquiry, sabotaging any chance of coming up
with measures to prevent abuse in the future, and means the commission
will go on for "decades".
The government has held to its
original intent while endeavouring to provide something for those whose
cases will not be heard. The inquiry will look at "sexual abuse and
related matters", so that people who were sexually abused in
institutions do not have physical abuse they may also have received
The terms of reference define "institution"
very broadly, covering "entities of any kind". This includes clubs,
associations, state agencies, police forces, schools, orphanages, foster
care as well as churches. Companies would also be covered.
his response welcoming the terms of reference, Coalition
attorney-general spokesman George Brandis suggested it would be broad
enough for the commission to take account of the "evidence of widespread
sexual abuse of children within indigenous communities", although
Gillard cautioned it would not deal with sexual abuse within families.
the terms of reference state that the recommendations to be made by the
commission "are likely to improve the response to all forms of child
sexual abuse in all contexts".
The initial responses from both
victims groups and the churches have been favourable. Hetty Johnston,
founder of the advocacy group Bravehearts, said she was "ecstatic".
"There is everything in there that we hoped to see and nothing that we
feared we might. We are doing something extraordinary here."
Kezelman said allowing multiple commissioners to separately hear evidence at the same time would speed the process.
chief executive of the Catholic Church's newly formed Truth, Justice
and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, said issues remained but the
Church had no intention of "barricading" the commission.
response is positive, this is first and foremost about the victims of
these atrocities and we want to get to the truth, to embrace the royal
commission so the truth can come out," he said.
has set a date of mid-2014 for an interim report, and the end of 2015
for the commission to conclude its work, but Gillard flagged that the
end-date was elastic and could be extended if necessary.
the concerns of the victims' groups is that the commission not repeat
the experience of the Irish royal commission, which stretched on for
The government has sought to avoid the delays of the
Irish inquiry by proposing a separate investigative unit to deal with
individual cases that will liaise with Australian Federal Police, and
allow potential criminal issues to be dealt with more promptly.
But the government is under no illusions about the magnitude of the task ahead.
Rites spokesman Wayne Chamley, who spent 20 years researching abuse by
the Catholic Church, says the commission "will go nowhere" if it
includes all forms of abuse.
"We have spent 15 years trying to
get this royal commission - it will be stuffed up if the terms of
reference get off target like what happened in Ireland."
concerns are shared by lawyer Angela Sdrinis, who has acted for more
than 1000 child sexual and physical abuse victims over the past 20
In her submission to the government, Sdrinis argues that
unlike Ireland, Australia is not "starting from scratch", with at least
11 inquiries and redress schemes across the country on child abuse in
She proposes setting up "teams" to assist
the commission, as Northern Ireland has just done, establishing an
inquiry last October into abuse of children in care.
This is a
three-pronged approach including an "acknowledgement forum" that allows
victims to tell their stories, a research and investigative team to
provide historical context, and an "inquiry and investigation panel"
that produces a final report and passes it on to relevant police
"This then leaves the work of the commissioners to
focus on the systemic issues which must be the primary focus of the
inquiry," Sdrinis says.
Sdrinis is also an advocate of a
three-year time limit to ensure there are good policy recommendations to
help prevent future abuse as well as a redress scheme.
"It's going to be a huge balancing act," she says of the commission's job. "If you want to do it, you want to do it right."