AFTER 57 public hearings across 444 sitting days, hearing from more than 1300 witnesses, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a month away from drawing to a close.
The commission will sit for a final day on Thursday, December 14, a session its chief executive, Philip Reed, describes as a chance to thank the public for its continued support since the inquiry began in 2013. The commission will deliver its final report to the Governor-General the following day.
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For the many thousands of Australians whose lives have been shattered by child abuse, the royal commission has been a welcome salve on wounds that have festered for years, and may never heal.
As the hearings continued, the chair of the commission, Peter McClellan, began to emerge as a figure of compassion and authority. Compassion when it came to victims gathering the courage to tell their stories. Authority when it came to those in the witness box having to explain their failings, or those of their organisations.
In a speech he gave in Melbourne on Tuesday, Justice McClellan described child abuse as “the greatest of personal violations”. The commission was contacted by 15,000 survivors or their families and received complaints about 4000 institutions. Clearly, the Australian experience was not one of “a few rotten apples”.
Yet before the royal commission began its work, the rotten apple argument was precisely the defence that many organisations used when confronted by wrongdoing within their ranks. Were it not for the commission, they may still be getting away with such excuses today. And, of course, the royal commission was only finally agreed to after a long campaign, spearheaded by the reporting of a small number of determined journalists, including the Newcastle Herald’s Joanne McCarthy, who won a Gold Walkley for her efforts.
With the commission drawing to a close, attention will inevitably turn to redress for survivors. In Friday’s Herald, McCarthy interviews Chrissie Foster, who campaigned for the royal commission after having two of her daughters raped by a Catholic priest.
Moved by Justice McClellan’s speech, Ms Foster is calling on Canberra to accept all of the commission’s recommendations. The redress Bill introduced last month is surely as important as anything MPs will consider in this term of parliament.