HAVING covered the first nine days of Newcastle hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the Newcastle Herald is about to re-enter the fray on Monday, for two days of Anglican hearings followed by eight days on the Maitland-Newcastle diocese of the Catholic Church.
As I sat with my esteemed colleague Joanne McCarthy – who more than any other person laid the groundwork for this commission – I could not help but reflect on the mysterious set of codes and practices that is the Australian legal system.
I doubt I’m the only one whose first, reflexive response to the Royal Commission was to think that one of its first jobs would be to calculate the size of the child sex abuse problem – both currently and historically – in Australia. At this point, we must remember that this is not a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse, per se. It’s a commission into the institutional responses to that abuse: in other words, what the organisations in question did about the abuse perpetrated by their members.
I would have thought that to get a clear understanding as to whether or not an organisation responded adequately or appropriately to the wrongdoing in its ranks, the commission would want to know how much abuse there was in the first place.
Instead, the commission has taken an episodic approach, using particular cases or allegations of abuse to illuminate a broader situation. In this way, the “scope and purpose” of the Newcastle Anglican hearings is to inquire into: past and present systems for dealing with child sexual abuse allegations; the experiences of survivors; the response to allegations against nine individuals including former Dean Graeme Lawrence; the institutional culture of the St John’s College, Morpeth, seminary; and any related matters.
After nine days of hearings we are about to have two more, and the commission has said it may need further sittings, in Sydney, to conclude the Newcastle Anglican chapter, the sixth to involve the Anglican church of the 44 case studies announced so far.
Despite those nine days of sometimes disturbingly detailed testimony, there have been only passing references to the numbers of cases on the diocese’s books. On the evidence given so far, the total number could be as few as 30 or 36, or as many as 109. This latter number is the total of the “brown envelope” cases, which was variously given as 30 or 36, and 73 files that the diocese’s professional standards director, Michael Elliott, said were “not put into a brown envelope”.
When I asked the commission whether we needed to quantify the problem in order to judge the “institutional response”, I was told that “to identify the extent of child sexual abuse is not possible, as we know that a significant proportion is never reported”.
“However, in a final Royal Commission hearing in the future we will publish the results of a summary of complaints known to the Anglican Church from each diocese throughout Australia,” a spokesperson said.
I was pleased to hear this, and I trust that similar findings will be made for other institutions, which will, in the end, give some sort of official, or semi-official, estimate of the scale of this national disgrace.
In the meantime, there is some statistical analysis in the commission’s 2014 interim report. Based on information received from almost 1500 private sessions, the Catholic Church was home to about 40 per cent of the reported abuse, followed by the Anglicans with 7.4 per cent and the Salvation Army with 3.8 per cent. It’s worth reading online.