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.

Pic: Thinkstock

“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.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEDST.

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    • Bob says:

      01:49pm | 11/01/13

      Great that this is happening, but only a year and a half? (From another article on it)

      I could be confusing this with another portion of it, but I thought it was expected to require about a decade of work to do the job reasonably well,

      If I am confusing two separate parts, I’d be grateful for the details of the difference.

    • Bob says:

      02:36pm | 11/01/13

      Found the article I was thinking of:

      10 years was from the time Fitzgibbon believes it’ll require to finish the job.
      Again, this is far better than nothing, but why only 1/6th the amount of time predicted there? Why put a time limit on it rather than give it what it needs to finish the job properly as was done in Ireland? (With a far smaller population)

      Again, if this is just, say, the initial component, fair enough. I just haven’t seen any indication of that.

    • AdamC says:

      02:00pm | 11/01/13

      I am sure I am going against the grain here, but I am underwhelmed by this Royal Commission. It seems to be all about the government being seen to be doing something. Anything.  But we already know that most organisations, including Churches, schools, care homes and others, did a terrible job of dealing with child abuse. This was, ast least in part, because society at large did not really care about the problem, or saw the abuse of children as just part of life.

      Our attitude today could not be more different. Child abuse is the most reviled taboo in our community. Despite some of the florid, emotive language used in discussing this issue, I see no institutional or cultural barriers to identifying, reporting and prosecuting child abusers today. Indeed, the vast majority of cases that this Royal Commission will hear will have already been in the public domain. Many of them will have already been investigated.

      I do not believe there are people, such as priests, covering up for abusers within institutions today. However, to the extent that there are any, they should be investigated and prosecuted right now. We do not need a Royal Commission to do that. We actually do not need a Royal Commission to do anything. We already know what we need to do. By and large, we have already done it.

      People who support this Royal Commission do so because they want to be able to go back in time. They want to embrace the thousands of children who were abused and betrayed. Whose cries for help were ignored or dismissed. Unlike those in authority at the time, we want to believe those children. We want to tell them they did nothing wrong. We want to help them; to stop the abuse from happening. But we cannot do that. A Royal Commission is not a time machine.

    • John says:

      02:29pm | 11/01/13

      “A Royal Commission is not a time machine.”

      But it is an excellent means of uncovering the truth and holding the perpetrators to account.

    • Bob says:

      02:30pm | 11/01/13

      Apparently the one done in Ireland a few years back (That took ten years) had impressive results.

      Wiki article on it is here:

      It’s not a time machine, but it does both provide closure for victims and set a precedent that someone who does this will be caught sooner or later and that those who cover up for them will also be punished.

      Prosecuting people for any crime won’t undo it. Yet it’s still highly worthwhile.

    • P. Darvio says:

      02:46pm | 11/01/13

      Quote: People who support this Royal Commission do so because they want to be able to go back in time.

      Pathetic – The Christian Priest Child Sex Rape (and a few other institutions) Royal Commission Inquisition is required to bring those responsible to Justice, including those in the Christian Church who have covered it up and continue to cover it up.

      The Victorian Inquiry has shown that up 1 in 15 priests is a paedophile.

      This means that an Australian child is 300 times more likely to be raped by a Christian Priest than the average person in the rest of Australian Society.

      Quote: I do not believe there are people, such as priests, covering up for abusers within institutions today.

      You either don’t read the news or choose to ignore it or you are kidding yourself - from only a few days ago

      One can only hope the Royal Commission exposes the real truth and the ring leaders in the Christian Church, and then our democratic secular justice system holds them to account.

      The cost of this Royal Commission, and compensation for victims, should be taken from the $30 Billion a year in grants and tax breaks given to religious organisations.

      Of course it took an Atheist Australian Leader to show some real Morals and real Ethics and call for this Royal Commission.

    • vox says:

      03:34pm | 11/01/13

      I support this Royal Commission, and I certainly want to go back in time and I am positive, (did you hear that? Positive!), that there are thousnads of paedophiles and supporters of paedophilia within the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
      No priest, or even anyone training to become a priest could possibly be unaware of the presence of these heinous, perverted opportunists.
      The Victorian enquiry established that in a Catholic Semenary with 1,000 “students”, there would be about 150 paedophiles preparing to be unleashed upon our children. Could any of the other students not be aware of the sexual proclivity of these monsters?
      Don’t go back in time? What sort of protective argument is that? If someone murdered your mother twenty years ago would you want the offender brought to justice? Why do you say it should be “excused” in a child molester?
      The reason paedophilia exists and flourishes, today, in the Catholic Church is because people with that attitude condoned the dreadful treatment handed out to kids for centuries. Fear sealed lips for much of that time. Now cowards condone, and supporters support.
      Bring it on, and thank you Julia Gillard. The world of decent people applaud you.

    • Giannac says:

      04:39pm | 11/01/13

      Good comment.

    • P. Darvio says:

      03:11pm | 11/01/13

      I hope the Commissioners take into account during this Royal Commission the fact that religious leaders were fervently opposed to this Royal Commission and when they are forced to give evidence (as I hope they are) they should be asked to explain comments like this from the Head of the Christian Church in Australia.

      “Back in those days, they were entitled to think of pedophilia as simply a sin that you would repent of. They didn’t realise that in the worst cases it was an addiction, a raging addiction.”

      “..think of pedophilia as simply a sin…”



      And then when the Royal Commission Inquisition was announced – what was the response….

      “..George Pell has blamed a smear campaign against the Catholic Church for public pressure that led to a royal commission into child sex abuse”

      So we should now call it the Christian Priest Child Sex Rape (and other Institutions) Smear Campaign Royal Commission.

    • t says:

      03:11pm | 11/01/13

      Adam C

      “People who support this Royal Commission do so because they want to be able to go back in time. They want to embrace the thousands of children who were abused and betrayed. Whose cries for help were ignored or dismissed. Unlike those in authority at the time, we want to believe those children. We want to tell them they did nothing wrong. We want to help them; to stop the abuse from happening. But we cannot do that. A Royal Commission is not a time machine. “

      ‘those children” are now adults, such as myself. Who want answers!  We aren’t that stupid that we think we can change the past.

      And we want those responsilbe to be punished and at the least shown for what they really are, so it never happens again.

      Knowing the truth is always a step in the right direction toward recovery and forgiveness… Which is what I have always been told when seeking help.

    • Peter says:

      03:19pm | 11/01/13

      I’m all for this. My cousin was abused and he struggles with life. As a father, I would hate to see my daughter suffer in this way. I’m sure we won’t get every abuser, and be able to help every abusee, but if we can break many cycles of child sexual abuse, then we can save future pain and that would be worth every cent.
      I also hope that this does not turn into a witch hunt. The end result should be to stop the practice and not to get revenge.

    • PJ says:

      03:34pm | 11/01/13

      “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”

      What if an Institution or body has been really effective in concealing it’s widespread child abuse to the extent that no complaints have surfaced?

      In these cases, Is it ‘carry on Uncle Fiddle about?’

      I knew the kids would be betrayed again. Here’s an opportunity to expose and tackle child abuse in Australia thats been ‘dumbed down’ for political agendas.

    • NSS says:

      03:52pm | 11/01/13

      Systemic abuse and systemic cover-ups must absolutely be unearthed and brought out into the glaring light of day, for the sake of closure for past victims and also to ensure that like practices can never be ignored in the future, especially if the full force of the law is applied to anyone charged as result.

      The Irish example is a good one, however ten years is an awfully long time. I doubt Australians would have patience with the expense if ours ran that long.I also feel that we require a reasonable time frame in order to be assured of a sense of urgency and purpose. Lets not forget also that much information has already been gathered by State inquiries which I presume can be submitted to the Federal one.

    • Bob says:

      04:05pm | 11/01/13

      I dunno, I’d be surprised if many actually objected to it continuing while it was still producing results.

      Additionally, as long as it was still successfully uncovering abuse cases, it would be an extremely brave politician who suggested stopping it.

    • Paul M says:

      04:28pm | 11/01/13

      A fine idea. Are they going to go after female schoolteachers?


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