Junk Explained: Where Are We Up To With The Royal Commission Into Child Sexual Abuse?

Junk Explained: Where Are We Up To With The Royal Commission Into Child Sexual Abuse?

Way back in 2012 — a safer time, when Skywhale was just a multi-boobed glimmer in Patricia Piccinini’s eye — the Gillard government announced The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

You might have seen it in the news this week, because on Monday Cardinal George Pell was called back from the Vatican to front the Commission’s second hearing in Ballarat later this year.


Time for a recap.

Is Child Abuse In This Country Really So Bad? 

Well, that’s one of the things we wanted to find out. It all started with Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, who contra to popular belief is notthe villain in a Roald Dahl short story, but a brave and experienced police officer. Fox told a November 2012 episode of Lateline that the scale of sexual abuse allegations he had seen was “astonishing” and said “the [Catholic] Church hinders police investigations”, as he  called for a royal commission.

About a week after that interview, Prime Minister Gillard announced the creation of the royal commission, saying there were “too many revelations of adults who have averted their eyes from this evil”. The commission proceeded with bipartisan support, in part because it did not set out to investigate just the Catholic Church. It would be about “institutions”, including schools, youth groups, exercise clubs and the Church.


The commissioners come from a diverse range of backgrounds, and assembled for this task like the bespectacled white-haired Avengers: there’s an ex-cop (Bob Atkinson) a child psychiatrist (Helen Milroy), a judge (Jennifer Coate), a senator (Andrew Murray), and Thor.

So far the commission has received allegations of abuse in over a thousand institutions across Australia, including the YMCA, the Scouts, Knox Grammar, The Salvation Army, and the Satyananda Yoga Ashram — so it looks like the answer is “yes, it really is that bad”.

How Does A Royal Commission Work?

Royal commissions are truth-finding tools, usually used for issues of national significance when no other institution has been – or would be — able to get the job done.  The government clearly defines an issue they want to investigate, and then a special workforce gets given special judicial powers to conduct an ongoing and public investigation into it. Then, usually years later, they write a report that contains findings (what happened) and recommendations (what do we do about what happened).


Royal commissions can summons people to testify under oath, and can compel people to produce documents. They can’t decide matters of criminal conduct — those have to go to the relevant policing authority — but they can pass testimony on to the police without having to check with or inform the person who gave the testimony. Royal commissions cannot pass or change laws, but they can (and do) make recommendations to the people who can.

By and large (except for some really old-timey ones, like the 1927 commission on the moving picture industry, and the 1906 commission into “secret drugs and cures”), we’ve reserved Royal Commissions for really important things — which is why people got so annoyed about the 2013 Royal Commission into Home Insulation, feeling that this did for Royal Commissions what dudes at the beach in rolled up khakis with two-thirds of a donut for a hairline did for the science of metal detection. There was one for the whole AWB oil-for-wheat kickback scandal, which if you’re like me you remember in a ’90s haze of tazos. We’ve also had commissions into Aboriginal deaths in custody; the effects of chemical agents on Australian soldiers in Vietnam; and, now, one into institutionalised child abuse.

What Are Has This Royal Commission Found? 

Royal commissions get given ‘terms of reference’, which set out what they’re meant to do. If you like that kind of sceptre-waving, “by the power of her Majesty” stuff, you can read the current Royal commission’s terms of reference here.

If you want it in plain English, the commission is broadly tasked with finding out three things:

  • What happened;
  • How well it was responded to, and;
  • How we can do better.

On “what happened”, the general answer is ‘too much, to too many people’. So far the Commission has made more than six hundred referrals to authorities, including the police. You can understand the moral gravity of these charges without having to read the awful details, but if you saw too many kittens and spontaneous kind deeds this morning and you need to be brought down a notch, you can read more about the extent of the abuse here.


The commission’s next job is to evaluate how well various institutions responded when presented with allegations of abuse. They’ve called for submissions and released a number of papers about the findings, which broadly fall into two camps: institutions that had bad policies, and institutions that didn’t enforce the policies they did have.

Towards Healing’, the church’s controversial policy which often involved settling with victims on the condition of a confidentiality agreement, counts as ‘bad policy’ for the commission – one victim said there was “no justice” in it, and the commission found that in some cases it had not been “fair, compassionate, or just”. The Salvation Army’s response seems to be in the ‘bad policy’ camp as well: the commission found there was “no clear policy of reporting allegations to police”, lots of staff with “no child-specific training”, and no system for “complaints … to be independently determined”.

Then there are responses like the YMCA’s, where reasonable(ish) child protection policies just weren’t applied, according to the commission. There’s a whole paper on one YMCA employee who had been fired from an old job for “questionable” behaviour with a child. The paper found that if the YMCA had properly applied the screening process, the employee would have been unlikely to secure another job around young people. But they didn’t, and he did — and now he’s in jail for ten years. You can read more papers on institutional reactions here. Submissions are still open for the issues paper on police responses, and you can find out more about that here.

The final task is to work out what we can do better. The commission is interested in how to achieve “best practice to encourage reporting”, “what institutions and governments should do to better protect children”, “what should be one to reduce impediments .. to responding appropriately”, and “what governments should do to alleviate the impact of sexual abuse”. Which leads us to…

Is There Money? I Heard There Was Money.

The commission is looking into “means of redress” — and yes, that inevitably raises the question of compensation, and the more delicate question of how much compensation. This isn’t new to this debate: one of the main objections to the Church’s ‘Towards Healing’ program was that the amount of compensation victims were offered was too small. $50,000 was the maximum payment found, and anecdotally victims often got offered much less. Compare this to the Netherlands where victims often get  €100, 000, or the United States, where a victim once received a payment of $5.2 million.

Earlier this year, the commission released its own recommendation for compensation:$65,000 to eligible individual survivors. Given the commission estimates there are about 65,000 of those people, the total cost comes to $4.5billion. The commission also found that the preferred way to pay the victims would be to let the federal government administer it, but to get the money from the institutions themselves: the more abuse happened in your institution, and the worse you dealt with it, the more you’d have to contribute to the compensation fund.

Compensation is just one part of what the commission recommends as part of the “redress” process. It also recommends “a direct personal apology by the institution if the survivor wishes to engage”, and “access to counselling and psychological care”.


What About All This George Pell Stuff? 

It hasn’t been a great fortnight for The Artist Formerly Known as Shinyhat. In Ballarat last week, imprisoned paedophile Bishop Gerald Risdale told the commission that Pell shared the home where he, Risdale, molested an 11-year-old girl. Then on Wednesday, Risdale’s molested nephew testified that Pell had said to him, “I want to know what it will take to keep you quiet”, and on Sunday night’s 60 Minutes, the Pope’s special appointment to the commission for the protection of children called Pell “almost sociopathic”.

Embedded video
60 Minutes Australia

Peter Saunders sits on the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. He breaks his silence on George Pell:

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Pell’s already appeared before the commission, in person and by videolink, but in the last week public pressure mounted for him to come home and respond to the new allegations under oath. There was a slight worry that he might stay in the Vatican, which would’ve meant the commission would not have been able to summons him, but he was quick to say he would testify if asked. On Monday, the commission asked — and he’ll appear at another hearing in Ballarat later this year.

Where To From Here?

When the commission began, the terms of reference said it would wrap up in December 2015. But the interim report asked for an extension until December 2017, so don’t hold your breath for the recommendations.

Between now and then, the Commission is finishing off the 70 hearings it wanted to conduct, taking submissions on victims’ experiences of police responses and civil litigation, and continuing to investigate appropriate means of redress. It seems likely that the findings about police responses and Pell’s testimony will be the next big headline-makers, but if you want more information more often, you can attend a public hearing or watch it online. Between hearings you can check the active and easy-to-understand website and twitter page, that publish updates about what’s going on and where it sits in the scheme of the investigation.


There will be plenty of time to trade outrage about which politician said what when the recommendations come down: don’t let’s forget in the meantime that this is about kids who were betrayed by the grown-ups who were supposed to keep them safe.

Eleanor Gordon-Smith teaches ethics and philosophy the University of Sydney, and tweets from @therealEGS.

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) offers counselling, support or assistance for anyone who has experienced sexual assault or family violence. If you or any one you know has been affected by child sexual abuse, you can find more support services here.




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