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Sexual abuse of children alleged at 4000 institutions: Royal Commission

Sexual abuse of children alleged at 4000 institutions: Royal Commission

By Carolyn Ford

Child Welfare Young Persons 

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More than 4000 institutions where sexual abuse of children is alleged to have occurred have been identified by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, with 2000-plus referrals made to police and law enforcement agencies.

Justice Jennifer Coate told a conference in Melbourne that public hearings had heard evidence about child sexual abuse within a broad range of institutions – schools, churches, sports clubs, residential care facilities, youth detention institutions and others.

“We have identified more than 4000 institutions where the sexual abuse of children is alleged to have occurred.”

Justice Coate spoke 10 days out from delivery of the final report of the Royal Commission to the Governor General on 15 December.

She was speaking at the Victoria University’s Faith-based Governance and Dispute Resolution Conference in Melbourne in a session called Beyond the Royal Commissions: Best Practice for Faith-based Organisations.

Six commissioners met with more than 8000 people, the last private session just one week ago, the conference was told.

“We have learned so much by listening to the thousands of people who spoke with us,” Justice Coate said.

“These [private] sessions represent an extremely important part of our work which allow us, on behalf of the nation, to bear witness to what has happened in our community to so many children and the lifelong pain and distress and suffering it has caused to individuals, their families and in turn to us as a community as the enormity of what has and can happen, has been revealed.”

Royal Commission data gathered from private sessions showed:

  • About 58 per cent of institutions named were operated by religious bodies, 32 per cent by government.
  • Of those institutions with religious affiliations, 40 per cent were schools, 35 per cent were residences such as orphanages and 25 per cent were churches.
  • The Catholic Church was named two-thirds of the time, about 15 per cent reported abuse in the Anglican Church and 7 per cent in the Salvation Army.
  • About 85 per cent of people reported an adult male as the alleged perpetrator; 20 per cent reported someone under 18 as a perpetrator; the vast majority were male.
  • Of the positions alleged perpetrators held, about 53 per cent being reported were in religious ministry, about 23 per cent were teachers and 13 per cent were residential care workers.
  • Most people were reporting what happened before 1990 but the average time it takes to report is 23.9 years. Men took longer than women to first disclose.
  • The Royal Commission has made more than 2000 referrals to police and law en-forcement agencies.

Justice Coate said identified problematic characteristics of faith-based institutions included idealisation of its religious people, “granting them high status and a kind of reverence that did not allow for any questioning … even in circumstances where those actions became more and more bizarre and unacceptable by any normal community standards.

“Such high status also meant that complete and unsupervised access to children was unquestioned. Indeed, in a number of cases we heard that parents were delighted if attention was shown to their child by a religious member of their faith.”

Other problematic characteristics of faith-based institutions were secrecy, inaction or active cover up to avoid complaints being repeated outside the hierarchy of the institution; and protection of the alleged offender, even when there were admissions of wrong doing.

Justice Coate said case studies revealed some perpetrators were allowed to maintain their status even in the face of years of complaints, subject to neither disciplinary action nor risk management.

“Some were moved to new postings and given a ‘fresh start’ without warning the new community or even the supervisor of the subject of the complaint of the risks … it was regularly done quietly or concealed behind false grounds such as ‘retiring for health reasons’.”

Lack of understanding about the risk of reoffending was a recurring theme in evidence given by faith communities to the Royal Commission, said Justice Coate.

“The offending behavior was sometimes minimised or described as a ‘moral failing’, which could be addressed by rebuke and warning or spiritual renewal. Forgiveness and repentance also played a part in allowing continued contact with children.”

Speaking to impact, Justice Coate said, “In case there is anyone left in the nation who doesn’t think this is important … almost 9 in 10 survivors report impacts on their mental health including depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Sadly, some lives have been lost to suicide in the wake of child sexual abuse.”

She also reported struggles with substance abuse, problems in employment, education and economic circumstances, lack of trust in authority, problematic relationships, lack of confidence with parenting, alienation from peers and community and loss of faith.

Justice Coate said the Commission’s final report would have a considerable amount to say about complaint handling processes. “Approaches to child safety in Australia are inconsistent and fragmented.”

She said in complaint handling, it was important to understand barriers to disclosure. They included shame, guilt and fear, including fear of repercussions and not being believed. Threats and inducements were also given as reasons people remained silent.

Some people had not reported due to their parents’ devout faith, or because it would be too distressing for their parents, so they endured the abuse to protect their parents.

“For some, the perpetrator threatened dire consequences such as the child would go to hell if he/she disclosed; the family would be hurt and/or banished from the faith community or that God would punish them or the family.”

Others said they simply didn’t understand what was happening to them at the time because they were too young, and “sex was so strictly taboo it was not possible to find a way to report”.

Justice Coate said participation in school based prevention programs and being asked in a sensitive way by a trusted adult may help children to report.

Australia is at a crossroads moment in the safety of its children, according to Justice Coate. “We are at a crossroads moment in this nation and everyone … has a part to play.

"At the conclusion of this Commission we will present a lengthy report containing our final recommendations on the laws, policies, procedures, practices and systems to strengthen the prevention of, and response to the sexual abuse of children in institutions.

“We have worked to make this Royal Commission the opportunity to tell the national story of children, sexual abuse and institutions, so we can lay the foundations for a new story – one that provides a safer future for children in our nation.

“This is truly a crossroads moment in our history. Let us now all walk together on the right path towards that safer future.”

Professor Marcia Neave, who led the Family Violence Royal Commission, Francis Sullivan, CEO, Truth, Justice and Healing Council and Rabbi Marcus Solomon SC also spoke at the conference.


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