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Best of 2017: The abuse commission 'damp squib'



Next Friday 15 December another Australian royal commission will report on how very badly some of Australia's once-respected institutions abused the trust of children.

Children playing in waterOn 14 December the commission will 'sit' to ceremonially end five years of public hearings, shocking headlines, hapless defences and interim reports and recommendations. Peter Fox, he whose outrage at the pact between his police peers and local church leaders to 'deal' with sex offenders in his town, has nonetheless been ritually reproved by his employers' chosen investigator as 'obsessed'. Such is the way of public life. Whistleblowing rules don't prevent whistle-blower retributive responses.

The commission has published recommendations for law reform, bundles of discussion papers, a collection of the voices of some of the victims and apologies by humiliated representatives of some of the ogres. One religious group has privately opined the result will be a 'damp squib'. But will it? Have we heard it all? Or enough?

No fear.

But will the five years of scandal make a difference to today's children, or tomorrow's?

No fear of that, either.

Consider this. Just a few months ago the Prime Minister authorised a royal commission into the treatment of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory after truly disgusting visual evidence of the bullying, humiliation and torture of very young children in prisons. The criticisms were upheld but the commission's searing findings and recommendations about the need to close Don Dale and other children's prisons and to stop over-policing of vulnerable Indigenous children was not met with a full apology. Indeed Alice Springs police decided to use military tactics to 'police' groups of Aboriginal 'youths' around the town at night, on the basis of their being 'suspicious' to white home owners. Why? Because they can.


"The cause of the misuse of power over children was our refusal to take a child's world view as seriously as our own adult priorities."


It seems that Australian institutions will not ever be empowered and encouraged to provide safety education and support to the Indigenous children and families who make up nearly 80 per cent of the prison population nationally. Children continue to languish in remand concentration camps or police lockups without being sentenced. Prison officers are picked on the basis of bodily strength. And the commission's recommendations, which are predicated on the 'Black Deaths in Custody' unimplemented report recommendations made more than 20 years ago, have not softened the public heart.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has changed the public response of religious institutions, not their culture. Nor has it altered the culture at the political pointy ends of state, territory or national government. The reason the current commission has recommended but no state has shown any real interest in a national compensation scheme of 'up to' $150,000 is quite simple. Governments don't care enough.

Institutions feel confident that most survivors of abuse don't sue, and most victims can't afford to. And in reality, no apology nor even bigly compensation can take away the pain or fix the damage done to a child when they were very young. What happened to so many of these children, much of the time, deformed their spirit. As an adult, a victim of sexual violence, humiliation and pain as a child shapes his or her life around great pits and scars of these experiences and the memories of confusion, shame and retribution.

The cause of the misuse of power over children was our refusal to take a child's world view as seriously as our own adult priorities.

I'm sure that there were some who felt that protecting their institutions and traditions was a higher good than listening with an open heart and soft eyes to what was rotting away the core of their personal vocation. That was why Cardinal Pell's interest in stories of abused altar boys and pupils was not 'piqued' as he infamously admitted.

Horror stories of past wrongs don't change much. Our prurient interest has but short life. We are as people quite hideously cold hearted to refugees, battered women, suffering animals and wars in other lands than our homes.

The 'parade' of damaged people has changed the commissioners who heard them, I have no doubt. Public release of their stories and the common man's response has challenged many a religious institution's pious immunity and wounded status. It has also tainted public trust.

Worse, though its known findings have largely vindicated Fox's outrage and actions to reveal them during the Gillard administration, it has not touched the heart of the problem.

This is at our own heart a cultural contempt for the little people that once, we all were. While we adults can shout at, ignore, smack, slap, coerce, threaten and disbelieve our own and others' children, and while our taxes are not put into don't training parents, teachers, officers of our public institutions and those who run services for children about their spiritual development and our common responsibility to preserve it, and while we do not provide the services every child needs to grow into the person they were meant to be in a family environment of love and understanding, because we don't prioritise it, these horrors will go under for a little while, and then come back.

Have you ever seen the light in a young child's eyes go out? I have. It is the saddest sight. What will it take to make this stop?



Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer.

This article was originally published on 6 December 2017.

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Royal Commission, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

There seems to be a disconnect between sexual abuse of children in institutional care and sexual abuse of children living in family care. It has been immensely significant to give attention to the former but it’s as though the latter group has been whitewashed out of existence, yet it’s they who suffer most child sexual abuse. The Royal Commission is silent on this, government, media, commentators too, and there is little will, or resources, given to this problem. There needs to be concern about all children who suffer sexual abuse.

Rosemary Sheehan | 08 January 2018  

Rosemary, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was just that: an inquiry into institutional responses. Its terms of reference did not extend to abuse in family care. That's why it was silent on that matter.

Ginger Meggs | 09 January 2018  

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