Sunday, January 13, 2013

Churches and victims give inquiry support

Commission leader ... ChiefJustice Peter McClellan.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 apply."

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.

The rushed 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 interpretations.

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.

The 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.

However, others, such as Adults Surviving Child Abuse president Cathy Kezelman, warned it was a crucial part of the process for victims to be heard.

She said if the commission was not going to respond to individual cases, the government "needs to confess up front so survivors have realistic expectations".

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."

She 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.

But 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 dismissed.

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.

In 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.

However, 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.

The 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.

"Our 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.

The government 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.

One of the concerns of the victims' groups is that the commission not repeat the experience of the Irish royal commission, which stretched on for nine years.

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.

Broken 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."

Chamley's concerns are shared by lawyer Angela Sdrinis, who has acted for more than 1000 child sexual and physical abuse victims over the past 20 years.

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 institutional settings.

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 authorities.

"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."

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