Child abuse victims deserve more than the commonwealth’s excuses

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The moment when things went wrong for victims of child abuse in Australia was a very precise one. In the 1990s, Jeff Kennett, then premier of Victoria, met with George Pell, who was at that stage the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne. According to Pell, Kennett told him to “clean this [child abuse] thing up and there won’t be a royal commission”.

Kennett told The Age last year that he was “reassured that George said ‘yes’, he’d get stuck into it … it’s not for me to sit in judgment … of whether the response was adequate or not”.

We know what the church’s action was: Pell took matters into his own hands and set up the Melbourne Response in 1996. In doing so, he went out ahead of the rest of the church which, we know from the commission, was in the process of developing a more integrated, national version of what would become its response to abuse, Towards Healing.

By being unconcerned with the quality of the church’s response and leaving it to its own devices, Kennett made a serious mistake.

His response laid bare a question that the commission is now grappling with: do we believe the state has a moral duty to care for its vulnerable citizens, or not? Of course, many don’t believe that governments should “sit in judgment” on matters that are properly the domain of the private sector, civil society, or the impersonal order of the market.

We can see this tension in play as the commission embarks on its most important case study, to determine what kind of justice is due to victims in a post-commission redress scheme.

Governments were invited to make written submissions to three major issues papers and oral submissions to the commission’s hearing regarding victims’ redress. These would be compiled into a report and recommendations, to be released in July.

Only three state governments accepted the commission’s invitation to appear to give oral submissions – Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. The commonwealth also declined to attend.

And the written submissions of many governments not in attendance were manifestly insufficient, giving the impression that the states are keeping their political options open or have not made the time and effort to contribute constructively.

Commissioners are obviously bound by tact and political considerations in what they may say, but Peter McClellan, the chief commissioner, spoke yesterday in very strong terms, particularly about the absence of the commonwealth. One passage deserves to be read in full:

The commissioners are disappointed that although our terms of reference suggest that the need for effective redress has been accepted by all governments, the structural approach that is overwhelmingly supported by survivor advocacy and support groups and by many institutions as being most likely to ensure a just, fair and consistent outcome for all victims, wherever they may have suffered abuse, is not presently supported by the commonwealth.

The commonwealth’s reasons for declining to support the commission’s preferred option – a federally-run redress scheme with buy-in from state governments and churches, schools and the like – included complexity, time, the necessary bureaucracy and potential overlap with existing state schemes.

This is no more than a grab bag of excuses, including of the cowardly federal-state “blame game” genre. More disappointing is the reckless and anti-intellectual nature of refusing to participate in the commission’s work in good faith. It sends the message that the commonwealth is prepared to proceed against the best advice of the world’s best integrated system for investigating and addressing child abuse.

Few are interested in it, and it’s certainly not sexy, but the commission is making up for a knowledge gap by conducting intensive academic and policy research, alongside interviews with victims and the highly-publicised hearings.

That’s vital to get the best outcome for Australian victims. The result of our royal commission will also be scrutinised by international inquiries, legal systems, academics and support workers. How we administer justice here will influence the outcomes for countless people around the world.

The commonwealth’s failure to attend also says, and McClellan made this point in no uncertain terms, that it is prepared to refuse support for the preferred solution of survivors’ groups, service providers and the accumulated evidence given in private sessions by victims themselves. McClellan noted that:

It also seems clear from the commonwealth’s submission that it does not support an expansion of the public provision of counselling and psychological care for survivors, other than through improving survivors’ awareness of existing services and their level of confidence in these services.

Where does that leave victims? We already know that private forms of redress – civil litigation being the most powerful – are expensive and often traumatising. It has been hammered home again and again that victims do not get good outcomes when they have to negotiate outcomes with the institutions that were responsible for allowing abuse to occur and in some cases, engaged in coverups.

Nevertheless, the commonwealth submitted to the commission that it is “strongly of the view that the institutions in which child sexual abuse occurred should bear responsibly for providing redress to survivors of that abuse”.

Let’s be very clear: some victims have killed themselves or been plunged further into despair after being fed through the courts. Others cannot afford private counselling, or need support to access services because they have been so broken by the crimes committed against them.

Others distrust the church or school in which they were abused to the point where they would rather not engage. Others still were abused in institutions that no longer exist.
That’s why a national redress scheme is so important. But when the final report is released in a few months, we already know it won’t have the confidence of the tier of government responsible for creating the commission in the first place.

This is the second time the commonwealth’s commitment to the commission has been questioned: in 2014 George Brandis was left to explain why $7m was redirected to the home insulation inquiry. All this comes after Tony Abbott, as opposition leader, gave his support for the commission’s establishment in 2013.

Where is that support today? At the very least, the commonwealth and absent state governments could have supported the commission’s solution in principle as best practice, and argued over whether it was feasible to implement. But no – they had to come out ahead of the commission and cruel any goodwill for the redress scheme’s establishment, even before the release of the final report in a mere few months.

From the moment I began writing about the commission, I thought the Catholic Church would be the institution to oppose the establishment of a national redress scheme. I no longer believe that, because it is in the church’s interests to support such a scheme. They realise that, which is why they are clamouring for it to be established.

The church is responsible for the largest number of institutions in which abuse occurred, and the biggest proportion of known victims. Unless it supports a well-structured national scheme, its finances and moral witness may well disintegrate.

Perhaps that will happen anyway; the important thing is that the church has learned that it can no longer go out ahead of the commission – something governments have not learned.

Of course, it is not in the “private” interests of other institutions (like the wealthy, Protestant private schools) and government to be yoked to the ongoing process of assisting the Catholic church to deal with the care of countless damaged people.

But when the commission was put place, we recognised that abuse is a whole-of-society problem, not something that can be dealt with piecemeal, privately, institution by institution. That was the Pell-Kennett compact made in the 1990s, that failed and led to the situation we face today.

By taking us back to that moment, the commonwealth government risks the commission resulting in the worst possible outcome we might have imagined.

Source: The Guardian