14th December, 2017 | Melissa Davey & Miles Martignoni | The Guardian
The chair of Australia’s child sexual abuse royal commission, Justice Peter McClellan, has delivered his final address before a room of hundreds of survivors and advocates, telling them: “The sexual abuse of children is not just a problem of the past.”
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull and the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, attended to hear McClellan’s final address as commission chair. The Labor MP Jenny Macklin also attended. Survivors held signs and wore badges that read: “Thank you royal commission.”
The final sitting of the royal commission in Sydney was held as a mark of respect to the thousands of survivors who told their stories to the six commissioners in private sessions or public hearings. For five years, the commissioners have held hearings throughout Australia, hearing about abuse that occurred in more than 4,000 institutions.
“The failure to protect children has not been limited to institutions providing services to children,” McClellan told attendees. “Some of our most important state instrumentalities have failed. Police often refused to believe children. They refused to investigate their complaints of abuse. Many children who had attempted to escape abuse were returned to unsafe institutions by police.”
Survivors and their advocates cried as McClellan spoke of children being betrayed by those they were entitled to trust. He thanked survivors for reliving traumatic experiences that “profoundly harmed them” to assist the commission in its work. He said the trauma of sexual abuse was something survivors would “never escape”.
“The commissioners thank each of the survivors who told us their personal story. Without them we could not have done our work. Each survivor’s story has been important to us. The survivors are remarkable people with a common concern to do what they can to ensure other children are not abused. They deserve our nation’s thanks.”
The royal commission conducted a total of 57 case studies resulting in 44 separate reports, McClellan said, but he added that, because of ongoing investigations and prosecutions, reports concerning Catholic church authorities in Ballarat, Melbourne and some parts of New South Wales will be suppressed in whole or in part until the criminal process has concluded.
“Although I know this will disappoint some people it is important that nothing should occur that might compromise any criminal proceedings,” McClellan said.
He was met with applause when he spoke of the counsel assisting, Gail Furness, and the work of more than 680 people who worked for the royal commission.
The greatest number of abusers worked in Catholic institutions, he said. Power afforded to leaders and the trust placed in them by parents and other staff, and a desire to protect institutional reputations allowed and facilitated the sexual abuse of children. Aggressive lawyers were engaged by institutions to silence them, he said.
After the hearing, Francis Sullivan, head of the Catholic church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, expressed his disappointment in the Catholic church. No senior church figures attended.
“I think it would have been a real sign of solidarity with the victims if we’d had some members of the hierarchy and senior figures from the church here,” he told Guardian Australia. “One can only assume they didn’t feel comfortable coming here.”
McClellan concluded by saying: “Child sexual abuse continues in institutions today.”
“We heard in private sessions from children as young as seven years of age who told us they had been recently abused,” McClellan said, adding: “If the problems we have identified are to be adequately addressed, changes must be made.”
He said: “The sexual abuse of any child is intolerable in civilised society. It is the responsibility of our entire community to acknowledge that children are being abused. We must each resolve that we should do what we can to protect them.
“The conjunction of events which the royal commission has examined can only be described as a national tragedy.”
The commission’s 21-volume final report will be delivered to the governor general in Canberra on Friday.
Outside the courtroom survivors from the Care Leavers Australasia Network confronted Turnbull and Shorten.
A co-founder of the network, Leonie Sheedy, was told by the Labor leader: “We are not interested in giving you half justice.”
She also pressed Turnbull about redress for survivors, angered that those with criminal records would be excluded from the scheme proposed by the government, which goes against the royal commission’s recommendations.
“We love you and we believe you,” Turnbull told her. “The redress bill we’ve introduced is being considered and we will look at submissions carefully.
“We will read all the recommendations carefully, we’ve already implemented the ones about redress.”
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