Time to tear off the blindfold on child sex abuse
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced the appointment of six royal commissioners and the terms of reference for the inquiry into child sex abuse. See all the details here. Below, Cathy Kezelman gives us her analysis.
“Child sexual abuse is an evil crime. Anyone who has ever suffered child abuse deserves to have their voices heard and their claims investigated.
“The Royal Commission will inquire into how institutions with a responsibility for children have managed and responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse and related matters.” These were the words of the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, on announcing the terms of reference for a national Royal Commission into institutional responses into allegations of child sexual abuse today.
In recent years, Australians have been shocked by the cumulative human cost of secrecy and silence around child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse is a cruel and destructive crime, and it is perpetrated against our most vulnerable citizens, our children.
Child sexual abuse is an abuse of power and a betrayal of trust. Child sexual abuse is not new. What is new is the opportunity offered by the Royal Commission for an open and transparent inquiry which investigates child sexual abuse within institutions, previously closed to scrutiny.
The announcement of the establishment of an investigative unit within the Commission to work closely with State police prosecutors will enable a coordinated approach, which ideally would have the powers and expertise to investigate past and present organisational abuses as well as make recommendations based on the collective knowledge acquired needed for systemic change towards prevention.
Child sexual abuse flourishes within systems which are closed and these include religious and state-run institutions, sporting clubs, scouting groups as well as the family, arguably the most closed system of all, and one in which the vast majority of abuse is perpetrated.
While the family is not the subject of this Royal Commission the same factors are at play. We need to be aware of the power abusers have long wielded, their investment in maintaining secrecy and silence, and in discrediting testimony. For too long, many perpetrators have escaped justice and accountability, protected by institutions complicit in covering up their crimes. The same processes of denial and cover-up occur in families.
For this reason it is imperative that anyone, within the Terms of Reference, who wants to provide testimony to the Commission does so. The testimony of survivors however must be heard with awareness of the courage it takes to break their silence, and overcome the shame, fear and conditioning of their assaults. One hopes that the establishment of a well-resourced and trauma informed investigative unit will enable that process.
The voices of family members and ‘whistleblowers’ will also be pivotal, as will the representation of silent voices – those lost to suicide and who are unable to come forward, which can in some part be represented by others including GP’s, mental health practitioners, lawyers and the police.
For it is those stories, coupled with documents and other evidence which will finally allow us to understand the factors, formal and informal which have fuelled child sexual abuse, past and present.
These stories will reveal how disclosures have been discounted and not acted upon, and that people reporting alleged crimes have been silenced, discredited and ostracised. How victims’ experiences have been minimised and dismissed leaving perpetrators to continue their reign of terror.
Let’s hope that this Royal Commission and the investigative unit which is being established will create an atmosphere and system in which it is not only deemed acceptable to speak out, but in which doing so is actively encouraged and applauded.
Only when we, as a society learn to hear, listen and act will we see real change. Only then will children be protected and victims and survivors receive the justice, care and support they need.
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