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Best of 2013: The unknown unknowns of the sexual abuse royal commission

  • 13 January 2014

An old adage has it that governments only agree to hold an inquiry when they know what it will find. Yet that has not always been true of royal commissions, and it is certainly not true of the royal commission into the sexual abuse of children in institutions, whose members and terms of reference the Gillard Government announced last week.

At this stage all that can be predicted with any confidence is that the task of Justice Peter McClelland and his fellow commissioners will be long and expensive, and that the evidence they will gather is likely to shame profoundly many of the institutions that come under their scrutiny.

That the commission will cost many millions of dollars and may need to continue well beyond the three years initially allotted for it can be seen as obstacles only by those who think that a desire for quick fixes outweighs the obligation to expose fundamental injustice and acknowledge longstanding grievances.

The nearest equivalent to this Australian inquiry is the Ryan commission in Ireland, which submitted its final report nearly ten years after it began hearings. If that is what it takes here, too, so be it.

The commission's terms of reference are properly broad, allowing it to investigate allegations of the sexual abuse of children in all types of institutions, public and private.

Such abuse has never been restricted to agencies of the Catholic Church. It can hardly be denied, however, that the chief impetus for the creation of this royal commission has been the appalling record of concealment of abuse in Catholic institutions, and of the protection of perpetrators by bishops and major superiors. If that record did not exist, the royal commission would not exist.

And Catholics — especially bishops and major superiors — cannot evade this fact by complaining, as they sometimes do, about malicious reporting by hostile secular media. If the abuses had not occurred, the reports could not have been written.

Worst of all, the abuse and concealment have evidently continued long after the church adopted protocols intended to redress the grievances of those who have been abused, and to prevent further abuse.

That is the considered judgment of Professor Patrick Parkinson, of the University of Sydney's law school, who twice reviewed the Towards Healing protocols for the hierarchy. He has since ended that relationship, because he says the protocols have been undermined.

The police submission to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into child abuse and