Many hopes are pinned on the National Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to fill the massive gaps left by the narrow terms of reference of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry, and the inadequate time and powers of the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry.
This is the comprehensive national inquiry which will scoop up the evidence from the smaller inquiries, and we hope, consolidate and then finish the job. We hope the Royal Commission will do the job thoroughly. We hope the Royal Commission will create an effective national framework to hold those guilty of child sex crimes accountable, and deliver recommendations, which it will be up to State and National Governments to implement, to properly protect all of Australia’s children.
There are many who hope to prevent the truth coming out. Many reputations will be justifiably shredded. Many, particularly religious officials, and not just from the catholic church, should be in jail. They have a lot to lose and they will stop at nothing to thwart the efforts of this Royal Commission, despite fallacious statements of an intention to co-operate. It is up to all of us who have had direct experience relevant to this Commission, not just survivors, and are able to speak to the Commission either privately or publicly, to ensure it does not fail for lack of evidence. Both for our own sakes so we are no longer comprehensively and deliberately denied justice and healing, and also for those equally innocent children who come after us, who also do not deserve to suffer as we did and do.
I personally hope the Royal Commission will not stop till it gets to the true reasons why so many adults protect predators and sacrifice children. Why so many undermine our laws, our justice system, and the truth in order to defend the reputations of dangerous criminals, while sentencing thousands of their innocent victims to life, or death, sentences.
We cannot just dismiss this issue as the dark side of human nature, cannot ascribe all blame to the evil monsters who deliberately inflict such horrific crimes on the most vulnerable in society. The buck doesn’t even stop with the equally evil monsters who knowingly enable these crimes, knowingly thwart our laws and knowingly endanger large numbers of children.
These crimes, and so much suffering, could have been prevented if those who turned away and let it happen, who did not speak up, who did not challenge the bullies, who did not put the protection of children before what is expedient for their careers and their social standing, had instead reached inside and found their courage, and had defended the truth, instead of going along with what they knew or suspected were lies.
Organisations which put their own interests before the human rights of those whose lives they impact, and those responsible for implementing, scrutinising or policing their policies and processes, are also very much to blame for so much of the suffering we will hear about over the next few years.
I sincerely hope the Royal Commission finally understands that institutions where children are in the power of adults will inevitably attract those seeking to exploit that power. That we cannot trust anyone to be in unquestioned and unscrutinised authority over children or other vulnerable populations. We must not give anyone the “benefit of the doubt”. We must not enforce the “rights” of powerful adults while denying even the most basic human rights to defenceless children.
I hope the Commissioners will understand how corruption, criminality, undue influence, threats, mismanagement, self interest, political and departmental incompetence, inexperience, laziness and cowardice all betray children, even under well intentioned systems. And at the other end of the spectrum, I hope they gain insight into how badly children fare under an overtly abusive system, such as those seen in many religious residential institutions, with up to 2,000 years experience of rewarding criminality, abuse of power and corruption, and treating the safety of children as unworthy even of consideration.
This week the Royal Commission began its first public hearing in front of all six Commissioners in its specially built hearing room in one of the most expensive office buildings in the Sydney CBD (or Australia for that matter).
The Commissioners would no doubt argue that their tough job extracting the truth from some very hardened and slippery criminals requires the overt appearance of power and authority. And for many religious criminals money certainly equals power.
However I am sure that most survivors would far prefer the millions spent on this location to have instead been channelled into appropriate and effective (not politically directed) ongoing support for survivors.
This first week is one of a number of case studies, looking at a specific case and touching on a number of organisations and issues. In the crosshairs this week was convicted sex offender Steve Larkins, and his time at Scouts Australia and Hunter Aboriginal Childrens’ Services.
The coverage of those organisations and issues was not comprehensive, and has already opened many new avenues of inquiry, and identified much additional evidence required by the Royal Commission. I hope the Commissioners were as horrified as I was to learn that Larkins had also been given unrestricted access to extremely vulnerable children at the notorious Kendall Grange, run by the paedophile Catholic order St John of God.
Before anyone complains that I cannot describe St John of God as a paedophile order, it is worth remembering a psychologist who worked with the order’s hundreds of child abuse victims for many years concluded 75% of the order were the subject of child sex abuse allegations. What else do you call such a group? And why have the police and indeed the Royal Commission not made St John of God a number 1 priority for investigation? What sort of society do we live in when such a statistic can be made public knowledge, and no-one in a position of authority is disgusted that this paedophile order is still receiving generous tax breaks, still demands religious reverence and unquestioned authority, and is still making profits from the provision mental health and other services, and yet nothing is done about their many, many crimes, about their not being fit persons to hold the positions they do, and the danger they represent?
In addition to the standard collection of detailed evidence, it was a delight to see Counsel Assisting, Gayle Furness, and Commissioner Justice Peter McClellan ask deadpan and fairly obvious questions of those whose actions or lack of action created the perfect conditions where a dangerous child sex predator could continue to offend and which exposed an unknown number of innocent children to a lifetime of undeserved suffering.
Because so much of the reason why this problem has grown to the extent of a culture of child rape in Australia, is the habit of responsible adults to ignore, dismiss or turn their backs on this issue. To not take these crimes seriously, to not treat them with an appropriate sense of urgency, to not ensure they are addressed and do not fall through the cracks, to not properly investigate any suspicions, to rely on assumptions rather than evidence, and to not care about how damaging these crimes are and how much danger these offenders represent to children.
This week’s evidence showed that in the Hunter/Newcastle/Port Stephens region no-one questioned whether their actions or attitudes were appropriate or adequate responses to these crimes. Most just went along with the general neglect and general cover-up.
This week’s evidence revealed many didn’t act themselves because they relied on the erroneous assumption that the fatally flawed court and child protection systems were actually doing the job they were supposed to do.
This week’s evidence also revealed the tragically common occurrence where the police, courts and child protection did not function as they should. Where they protected offenders, not their victims.
Adults who were in a position to take action that may have protected children in danger, or who could have stopped Larkins from being given continued access to children, decided it was not necessary, often because of the involvement of the police or because a matter had gone to court, or because a background check should have been done. The frequent assumption that if there was something to be concerned about, appropriate action would have been taken, was shown by this week’s evidence to have been a big factor in continuing to expose children to danger.
Statistics from Victoria, analysed by Judy Courtin, lawyer, researcher and PhD candidate, show just how wrong this assumption is in relation to the police and courts. The end result of the combined efforts of Victorian police and courts is that less than 1% of child sex assaults ever result in a conviction. Even less ever result in the only truly effective child protection measure, removing the offender from access to children via incarceration.
From now on, because of this historic Royal Commission, these assumptions will be challenged and the hard, normally unspoken questions will be asked.
It was very emotional to be one of the only survivors in a room full of corporate, government and police witnesses and lawyers, hearing Gayle Furness ask the very questions we have wanted asked all these years, and watch her wait patiently for an acceptable answer. An answer that never comes.
It brought slow, sad tears to my eyes to hear how every single witness, even to some extent the brave whistleblower, who in the end left the matter in the untrustworthy hands of his superiors and the police, let down all the vulnerable children to whom the predator Larkins had access. How much suffering around the country has been experienced by all the kids similarly betrayed, over the last 100 years in Australia?
Larkins is not the only predator attracted to Scouts Australia, though he was the focus this week. There are some very smelly old skeletons in the Scouting closets, but a policy from 2000 was presented to the Commission which looked to be an attempt to do the right thing. Such an approach is of course eminently sensible for any well managed modern organisation which does not believe it has a god given right to commit as many crimes as it likes without facing any legal or civil consequences or outside scrutiny.
The Scouts child abuse policy published in 2000 is based on three very simple yet effective points.
1. Immediate suspension for anyone about whom there is a child abuse allegation
2. Provision of counselling for all victims and other affected persons (no limits on counselling, and choice of own counsellor)
3. Report to relevant outside body, either police or child protection authorities or preferably both
Clear. Simple. Measurable. Action.
Not complicated. Not difficult. Not impossible. Not hard to identify the best thing to do.
The Royal Commission’s deliberations will determine whether this is a policy on paper only, a façade to reassure stakeholders and supporters, and whether it was or is in fact implemented.
But even if it is just another smokescreen, it is worth comparing these excellent points to the disgraceful Towards Healing and Melbourne Response operated by the Catholic Church in Australia. Or rather by the Catholic Church’s insurers.
Amazingly, despite arrogantly claiming to set world best practice in dealing with child sexual abuse, and deceitfully crowing that their churches are the safest place for children, the Catholic Church chooses not to attempt to do any of the above three simple and effective actions, but instead the complete opposite.
Church leaders don’t even pretend to undertake these three crucial steps. Because their compliance, or rather lack of compliance, with such clear requirements could be easily measured.
And if compliance can be easily measured, someone might expect church officials to actually do what they claim to do, and not just use such claims to sweep aside questions or criticisms.
And no senior church official has demonstrated any intention of doing anything like the three actions in the Scouts policy.
Because that would protect children rather than child sex predators.
Because that would help victims to recover and to be able to speak out about their abuse.
And because that would take these matters out of the hands of church officials, and knowledge about the nature and scale of the widespread criminality inside the catholic church could become public knowledge.
The Royal Commission could take this excellent starting point further in their recommendations. Organisations where abuse has occurred should be required to immediately and without question report any and all knowledge of such incidents. With stringent penalties, including jail time, for non compliance, slow compliance, or warning predators.
A national statutory authority could receive such reports, collect and hold information, with reference to the privacy of victims, and pass matters onto police, child protection or other bodies as appropriate. The statutory body would ensure victims receive counselling and any other support services, paid for by the abusive organisation but never supplied by anyone associated with the organisation. This body would also decide whether immediate employment suspension was warranted, and ensure an investigation takes place. After an appropriate investigation the offender would be charged by police, have a working with children notification, be restricted from access to children, or have their employment reinstated and their reputation cleared.
A single, national statutory body dealing with all reports would easily be able to provide accurate statistics to governments and researchers to measure the success of child protection measures, to inform future policy and legislation, and to track the lifetime offending record of predators attempting to move from state to state or organisation to organisation to avoid detection.
Naturally such an authority would need to be subject to regular independent audits.
It is not that hard to work out how to protect children instead of child sex offenders. The hard part is proving to Australia’s politicians that there really is no viable option but to put the safety of children first.
That is why the evidence submitted to the Royal Commission is so important.
Because even just the first week of evidence before the Royal Commission has shown clearly that children exposed to child sexual offenders in Australia do not just fall through the cracks. The whole system is one huge gaping chasm, with almost nothing to hold onto, and nothing to catch or support us before or after we fall into their clutches.
It is not a well intentioned system that is somehow failing to do its job. The system has been taken over by the predators themselves, such as Steve Larkins running Hunter Aboriginal Children’s Services, doing a Working With Children check on himself, and keeping his staff and even his Board in the dark and too intimidated to ask questions. The system is being steered by those, such as the church officials who developed Towards Healing, who have a vested interest in coverup, denial of healing and obstructing justice. The system is helped by those, who are themselves child sex predators, or who have been bribed, threatened or corrupted by cunning predators, and have worked themselves into strategic positions in the police force, the courts, the education system, mental health, charities and child protection. And from these positions they ensure reports go nowhere, nothing is followed up, evidence is lost or misplaced, procedures are not followed, policies are watered down, and their colleagues are encouraged not to take any breaches seriously.
The current system is actually working perfectly. Because the system is designed to fail children and to sacrifice child safety.
We do not need the Royal Commission to tinker around the edges of this most dysfunctional system.
We need a new system. One the predators and those who enable and coverup for them cannot subvert, cannot divert, and cannot use to harm rather than help Australia’s children.
Stay safe everyone.
The next public hearing of the Royal Commission, into the YMCA and their response to the predator Jonathan Lord, is scheduled for 10.00 am Mon 21 Oct at Hearing Room 1, Level 17, Governor Macquarie Tower, 1 Farrer Place, Sydney