December 13, 2017 | Joanne McCarthy | Sydney Morning Herald
The prime minister who instigated the royal commission into sexual abuse says Australians "won't tolerate" more inaction, and predicts removing tax concessions to push "recalcitrant" churches to act on reforms would win strong public support.
Julia Gillard said Australians would be "waiting and watching" for any sense of church or political delay after the release on Friday of the landmark final report from the five-year long Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
"Any sense that this is going to go on the back shelf and gather some dust, the community won't tolerate it, the public won't tolerate it," Ms Gillard told Fairfax Media.
She declined to predict if the royal commission would recommend linking tax concessions to reforms, after a public hearing in March where commission chair Justice Peter McClellan raised a scenario with senior Anglican clergy where the state could intervene by denying financial concessions "unless you get your house in order".
Ms Gillard said churches, governments and other institutions would need time to respond to the report but public pressure will exist regardless of "what levers are then needed to push some recalcitrants into action".
She knew the inquiry was going to be "a very major, very big inquiry" but "even I was taken aback by how much the royal commission uncovered and how absolutely harrowing that material has been".
The commission received a two-year, $126 million extension in September 2014 after it was overwhelmed by reports from victims of institutional abuse. It received 41,770 calls, 25,770 letters and emails, held more than 8000 private sessions and 57 public hearings and made nearly 2600 referrals to police and other authorities.
Ms Gillard said the royal commission had uncovered evidence that in some communities people beyond churches "turned a blind eye" to child sexual abuse. In a speech in November, Justice McClellan said church child sex offenders were protected in the past because of the broad view that "the community would suffer if its 'pillars' were exposed" as criminals.
Ms Gillard said she was not surprised that a Fairfax-Nielsen poll held days after the royal commission was announced showed 95 per cent support, but disputed that it reflected the community wanted powerful people to be held to account for decades of systemic child sexual abuse.
"My sense would be the predominant motivation of the public was that there's nothing more important than protecting children; a lot of evil has gone on and it ought to be exposed and we ought to better protect children for the future. The fact that the powerful were going to be held to account was collateral to that," she said.
Ms Gillard did not expect the royal commission to reach the Vatican, despite her government not setting "any fetters" on its operations. Members of Pope Francis' papal commission on child sexual abuse gave evidence in February of how the Catholic Church was an institution "struggling to come to terms with the safety of children and its responsibilities in that area".
Senior Australian Catholic clerics gave evidence of the Pope's refusal to follow Australian recommendations to defrock some priests. The commission also heard evidence of the Pope's refusal to change canon law to allow bishops around the world to report all child sex allegations to police and other authorities.
Ms Gillard said child sex survivors showed "amazing courage" in reporting allegations to police.
"Nothing I've ever had to do in my life in any way equates with that," she said.
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