12 November 2018




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The Opposition joins with the Government and, indeed, all Senators in expressing our most profound sorrow for the suffering and trauma experienced by all victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.

To all of those who experienced abuse at the hands of those whose duty it was to care for you, to nurture you and to look after you: I say sorry.

To the parents and family members who suffered the distress and trauma of learning that their precious children had been abused by those they trusted to take care of them: I say sorry.

I say sorry for your pain. I say sorry for your suffering. I say sorry for the innocence that was stolen. I say sorry for your loss of dignity, a loss for which we, not you, bear shame.

I say sorry for your loss of self-esteem and self-worth—a loss, again, for which we, not you, bear the blame.

I say sorry for the burden of grief you have carried for so many years—indeed, for so many decades.

I say sorry to those amongst you who were forcibly removed from country, from your spiritual home, and then subjected to physical and psychological violence.

I say sorry to those who joined youth groups, who joined the cadet corps and military apprenticeship schools and then suffered abuse at the hands of those who should have been your carers and mentors.

I say sorry to those of you who, fleeing the privations of post-war Europe, were transported to secular and religious institutions where criminal predators exploited your separation and vulnerability.

I say sorry to those who were ignored, who were disbelieved or abandoned when they sought help.

I say sorry for the lives irretrievably damaged, for those lives spent in misery or in gaol, and for the so many lives which have ended in tragedy.

And I say sorry that even though institutions knew about crimes committed against you they did nothing to care for you and that those same institutions and their leaders did nothing to bring perpetrators to justice but instead turned a blind eye or covered up their crimes; I say sorry.

The crimes that were committed against children in institutions, in schools, in churches, in recreational facilities and in community centres are an indelible stain on the reputation of those institutions and on the character of their leaders.

But more than that, the crimes committed against children and their families are an indelible stain on our society as a whole—on all of us. If the measure of a society is its caring treatment of those most vulnerable, then we as a society failed you, and in doing so we failed ourselves.

By failing to act when facts were known to institutional leaders, to people in authority, to senior members of church hierarchies and to our law enforcement agencies, we, as a society, condoned the evil of those who committed crimes against children and we are profoundly sorry for our collective sins of commission and omission.

We should recognise the perseverance and endurance of those very brave Australians—victims and survivors, family members, journalists and police officers—who set in train the Royal Commission that has brought us to this point. Without them we would not have found ourselves in a position, even at this late stage, to apologise for the pain and suffering that was inflicted, to apologise for the crimes committed and to apologise for the callousness of so many institutional and religious leaders who were complicit in these crimes by looking the other way or by covering them up.

But, most of all, the many survivors who came forward and told the truth to Royal Commissioners about what happened to them showed tremendous courage and selflessness. Their suffering is inevitably relived, pain rekindled and vulnerability experienced once again. Our admiration for their bravery and generosity mirrors the depth of our sorrow that these things happened in the first place. If you had not spoken, the apology and the actions that will follow would never have happened.

The perseverance of the families and relatives of victims and survivors has also been remarkable, and our Prime Minister Julia Gillard displayed her characteristic compassion and courage by establishing the Royal Commission.

This Commission, through its persistent determination to give voice to survivors, its findings and its recommendations, has performed a critically important service to the Australian community. It has exposed the appalling suffering of children and young people. It has chronicled the truth. It has identified the criminals who abused them. It has revealed the cover-ups, the complicity and the extent to which religious institutions exploited the law and legal processes to avoid legal accountability.

The Royal Commission has shown us how power and money, entitlement and privilege, corrupt those who preach compassion but deny it to the victims and survivors of their acts. It has made clear for all to see how too many institutional and religious leaders abandoned their duty to protect the most vulnerable. So many placed a wrong construction of the interests of their religious and civil institution ahead of the interests of those who suffered.

This was a callous act. This was an abuse of power, and it harmed many.

Justices McClellan and Coate, along with Commissioners Atkinson, Fitzgerald, Milroy and Murray, deserve our heartfelt thanks. There was perhaps no better tribute to the quality of the Royal Commissioners’ work than the comment of one of the witnesses, who wrote, ‘You cannot know what it meant to be listened to with such respect and made to feel that what happened to me really mattered.’

The Royal Commission’s findings are horrific and the scale of abuse is overwhelming. Of those survivors who spoke to the Commission, 10½ per cent alleged abuse at the hands of non-government, non-religious institutions; 32½ per cent at the hands of government-run institutions; 22.4 per cent at the hands of other Protestant denominations; and 35.7 per cent at the hands of the Catholic Church.

The Commission’s report found that, of the 1,880 perpetrators from within the Catholic Church, 572 were priests. Anglican clergy and lay youth leaders were also engaged in the sexual abuse of children, as were officers of the Salvation Army.

It appears that each of these denominations harboured sexual predators and worse, in many cases, knew about it. But instead of acting to protect children in their care they acted to protect perpetrators and the reputation of their institution with well established procedures to cover up crimes by moving criminals onto other parishes and other institutions where they could continue to prey on children, the vulnerable, the disabled and the powerless. This collusion was an abuse of power. This collusion compounded harm, and we condemn it.

Those who we should most admire are the survivors who came forward to tell the truth, to share their hurt, their pain and their violation. So to the members of the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Reference Group, which has guided and informed this Parliament’s apology, thank you.

Of course, sorrow for wrongs committed is worthless without genuine restitution. Simply saying sorry is meaningless unless there is repentance and a resolution to prevent the commission of further evils to make things right. Here we must ask ourselves and, more importantly, ask the institutions whether the Royal Commission’s discovery of all these crimes against children has had the requisite impact on leaders, whether there is any repentance for crimes committed.

Religious bodies must never again be able to use the separation of church and state as an excuse to cover up and perpetuate criminal behaviour, while simultaneously employing legal tactics to minimise financial responsibility. Hiding behind artificial legal structures and trusts that deny them legal personality is not the behaviour of those showing contrition. Rather, it looks like intention to continue to deny survivors redress and recompense, to compound injury with insult.

The extent of the crimes against children at the hands of both secular and religious institutions was the result of failure that was both systemic and systematic. So if we are to ensure that such exploitation is never to be repeated, those failures must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Beyond contrition and repentance is of course atonement. So what are these many institutions intending to do to atone for these failures?

Atonement demands deep introspection, a thorough reappraisal of how power is acquired, used and protected and it requires significant structural reform on the part of all institutions, and that is the real challenge that faces institutional leaders: how are they going to reform their structures and systems so as to prevent the recurrence of such widespread criminality?

Atonement also demands reconciliation and this is by far the greatest challenge for all of us. To restore trust after betrayal is perhaps the most difficult thing for a person to do. How much more difficult is it for an entire cohort of survivors?

Many of the survivors of child sexual abuse and their families retain deep anger towards those who committed crimes and the institutions that harboured them, and they cannot be expected to extend reconciliation and restore trust to those who continue to deny them rights.

Reconciliation also demands action on the part of those who offended, and guilt is not expunged by words. All of us who share that guilt, whether through ignorance, inadvertence or indifference, must back up expressions of sorrow and apology with actions that repair damage where we can, and restore trust where we might.

The Opposition, like the Government, supports all the recommendations of the Royal Commission and we also will work to ensure they are implemented in full.

The National Redress Scheme supported by Commonwealth, State and Territory governments is key to the journey to reconciliation. The scheme is far from perfect. It is too slow. Some survivors have been unfairly excluded, and some institutions are yet to sign up. It is imperative that institutions sign up and offer their unstinting support. Nothing less is acceptable. Survivors have been waiting decades for redress and, sadly, in many cases, they are running out of time. And it is imperative that we in the Parliament be guided by the original recommendations of the Royal Commission and that we listen to survivors throughout this process.

The National Office of Child Safety is another vital element in ensuring children are cared for, nurtured and protected. The safety of all our children is paramount and it is critical that children are themselves empowered to act in their own interests. They must be taught to recognise danger, to tell their parents and those caring for them when they see or experience something that they think is wrong, and they must be believed.

The Opposition also supports the establishment of a National Centre of Excellence. This will help survivors of institutional child sexual abuse to address the issues of stigma, to ensure that support services represent best practice to keep the memory of these injustices alive and to promote awareness of impacts of child sexual abuse and the avenues for its prevention. I encourage the States and Territories to support this initiative.

Senators, the Royal Commission has held up a mirror to the nation, and we have been shocked by what we have seen.

The nation is ashamed and the nation is sorry. But we know that we are better than this and we can do better than this. All of you to whom we say sorry today can expect no less.

So, as we beg the forgiveness of those who have suffered such unspeakable pain, we also know we must restore justice and we must rebuild trust.

We must resolve as a nation that we will do everything in our power to prevent this abuse, betrayal and harm from ever happening again.

Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.