15/12/2017 08:25 SAST

Australia's Child Sex Abuse Commission Exposes Systemic Violence

The report revealed persistent failings of institutions to keep children safe, of cultures of secrecy and cover-up.

SYDNEY ― Australia’s child sex abuse Royal Commission on Friday handed over its final report to the government in a move that increases pressure on lawmakers, religious groups and civic institutions to immediately adopt more than 400 recommendations.

For the past five years, the commission has put civic and state institutions like churches, the defense force, sporting clubs and after-school care under the microscope, examining their responses to allegations of sex abuse in their ranks.

The commission’s investigation has exposed a national tragedy of systemic abuse by shining a light on persistent failings of institutions to keep children safe, of cultures of secrecy and cover-up, and the devastating effects child sexual abuse can have on a life.

According to the report, tens of thousands of children have suffered abuse over a period of decades, most of them in religious institutions but also in state, private and not-for profit institutions, such as orphanages, clubs, prominent schools, juvenile detention centers and in disabled care.

“It is impossible not to share the anger many survivors have felt when they tell us of their betrayal by people they believed they were entitled to trust,” commission chair Peter McClellan said at the final hearing Thursday. 

“Many spoke of having their innocence stolen, their childhood lost, their educations and prospective career taken from them, and their personal relationships damaged for the rest of their lives.” 

A Book ‘Too Heavy To Lift’

The commission was set up in 2012 by Prime Minister Julia Gillard following explosive allegations by the former detective chief inspector of New South Wales, Peter Fox, over how the Roman Catholic Church covered up reports of abuse.

The commission received bipartisan support and a wide mandate to examine institutional responses to child sexual abuse across the country and report to government on what it found and make recommendations about how to proceed.

At the heart of its work were the personal stories of survivors. Combined, the six royal commissioners held more than 8,000 private sessions and received more than 1,300 written survivor accounts. 

Survivors were invited to write about their experiences and hopes for the future, all of which would be included in a commemorative collection.

“The resulting book is, I have to say, too heavy to lift,” Gail Furness, a counsel assisting the commission, told a packed hearing room in Sydney on Thursday

What Did It Uncover?

The commission held more more than 400 days of public hearings and heard allegations about misconduct at 3,489 institutions. 

Friday’s final report revealed that most of the allegations, 58.1 percent, were made against institutions managed by a religious body.

Of those who told the commission they were abused in a religious institution, 61.4 percent said they experienced abuse in a Catholic institution, followed by 14.8 percent in an Anglican institution.

The investigators found 60 percent of survivors had never disclosed the abuse before, and only about 6 percent had reported it to authorities.

The investigation would touch major institutions and major public figures. The Vatican’s third-ranking official, Australia’s George Pell, appeared before the Royal Commission multiple times to answer questions about how he, as a senior church official, handled allegations of abuse in the diocese of Ballarat and Melbourne. 

But it was the sheer systemic size that shocked most of all. Testimony repeatedly detailed failures of leadership and the triumph of institutional greed at the expense of little children. 

According to the commission’s analysis, 60,000 survivors would be eligible to make a claim for compensation under a national redress scheme. 

Results And Recommendations 

In October the federal government tabled a bill for a national redress scheme that would cap payments to survivors at $150,000 each in Australian dollars (about $115,000 U.S.) in compensation.

It’s now up to all states and territories to sign on to the plan, which is meant to take effect in July.  

The commission recommended that the government also set up a national framework and an office for child safety. It also recommended that priests and other religious leaders be compelled by law to report child sex abuse to police, even if heard in the confessional.