ABC News: Sex abuse royal commission to begin

The commission will look at religious organisations, state care providers, not-for-profit bodies, as well as child service agencies and police forces and what can be done so that the victims have justice.

The commission’s chairman, Justice Peter McClellan, will today provide information on how future private and public hearings will be conducted.

The senior counsel assisting the commission, Gail Furness, will also deliver an opening statement.
Audio: Royal commission set to begin (AM)

A spokesman for the royal commission has told AM it is anticipated the commissioners will start holding private discussions with victims of child sexual abuse in May.

Public hearings are not expected to start for several months.

An initial report is due by mid next year and the Federal Government has requested a final report by the end of 2015, but given the magnitude of the inquiry, it appears likely that deadline will need to be extended.

It has been compared to a similar inquiry in Ireland, which lasted a decade.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who announced the royal commission in November last year, told ABC NewsRadio this morning that the commission is “an important moral moment for our nation”.

“What I want to achieve out of the royal commission is twofold: for the survivors of child sexual abuse, I want this to be a moment of healing, for us to say to them as a nation ‘we hear you, you’re valued and you’re believed’ because for too long, so many of these survivors have just run in to closed doors and closed minds,” she said.

“And second, I want the royal commission to provide for us recommendations about the future.

“We’ve let children down in the past as a country – we need to learn what we can do as a nation to better protect our children in the future.”

Ms Gillard announced the commission a week after explosive allegations made by a senior detective in the NSW police force.

Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox alleged in an interview with Lateline last year that the Catholic Church hierarchy protects paedophile priests, silences investigations and destroys critical evidence to avoid prosecution.

But Chief Inspector Fox has told the ABC’s 7.30 program that NSW Police have informed him he will not be considered a whistleblower.

He says that decision leaves him open to litigation.

Many people are hoping the scale of abuse will be revealed today, while there are reports the commission is struggling to deal with the amount of people wanting to give evidence.

As a schoolboy in the 1970s, Stephen Woods was repeatedly raped and bashed by Catholic clergy. He has been lobbying for a royal commission for 18 years.

Mr Woods told Lateline he expects the scale of the investigations to be “massive”.

“There’s so much information, there’s so much crime, there’s so many people who want to talk about their pain, and we’re talking about pains of thousands of people,” he said.

“What an amazing time for cleansing for the Australian population. I’m living with the effects and the lasting turmoil in my life because of these people and because of the cover-ups that went on.”

‘Asking too much’

Even before the first hearings there appear to be problems with victims trying to tell their stories.

Support groups say parts of the referral process for victims are shambolic.

Abuse victim Nicky Davis from the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests says victims will find it difficult to submit their stories to the commission.

“I think expecting people to go to the commission’s website, particularly these very traumatised people, may be asking a little too much,” she said.

“There might need to be some public awareness advertisements as well, but it needs to be very, very clear and simple.

“It’s very hard to do that final step to submit it. It’s really tough even though I’m very familiar now with telling my story it’s hard and you can’t underestimate how hard it’s going to be for people.”

Lawyer Judy Courtin says the royal commission must give victims of child sexual abuse some options when it comes to giving evidence.

“Some survivors will want to give evidence in private and others not. Others would be prepared, for example, to even be cross-examined,” she said.

“Many of them too will want, for example, legal representation at the commission and it would be hoped that there would be some funding available for that as well.”

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus says the Government will fund a legal service to help people who want to provide information or appear before the inquiry.

“It’s going to be there to provide people with legal and procedural advice on important issues such as how they go about preparing a submission to the royal commission, how they give evidence, what ways they can participate in the hearings,” he said.

Mandatory reporting

One widely anticipated outcome is the mandatory reporting of abuse allegations.

Mr Woods says that needs to happen as soon as possible.

“It has to be even initiated before the royal commission is finished because there’s so many things that are being done now and there’s so many paedophiles who are dying now, and there are so many victims who are still dying, that mandatory reporting has to come in straight away,” he said.

Victorian MP Ann Barker, who has been a long time campaigner for the royal commission, says it is important victims are supported throughout the process.

“One thing that we have to be really careful about … many of those victims and survivors have now told their stories and we and the community at large can see how those lives have been destroyed,” she said.

“We can’t keep waiting for action to be taken to give them back some life, to look at the ways in which we can deal with it.

“As we move through this national royal commission we don’t have to wait to the end of the royal commission to provide some ongoing support and care for these many people that will have come forward.”

The Catholic Church has set up the Truth, Justice and Healing Council to oversee the Church’s involvement with the royal commission.

The council’s final members were announced yesterday afternoon and not all of them have links to the Church.

The council’s chief executive, Francis Sullivan, says today is an extraordinarily important day for Australia.

“This is a history that we need to get to the bottom of. We need the truth to come out,” he said.

“I don’t think you can overstate how important it is for the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has lost a lot of credibility due to the history of clerical sex abuse. The church leaders have made it clear that they want us to embrace the royal commission openly, transparently and wholesomely.”