NEW Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Children’s Minister Tracey Martin should be congratulated for establishing a child abuse royal commission after years of campaigning by abuse survivors.
But the inquiry has the potential to derail very quickly if the New Zealand Government fails to listen to survivors and advocates about the need to expand the terms of reference to include all church-run facilities. The current terms of reference restrict the commission’s investigations to physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect allegations involving children in state care, or where the state was involved in some way. It also restricts the investigations to allegations between 1950 and 1999.
Child abuse and child sexual abuse involve abuses of power and gross betrayals of trust. This we know after five years of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The Ardern Government and the New Zealand royal commission run the risk of losing the community’s trust - and even more importantly the trust of survivors, their families and advocates – if they do not respond to the serious arguments for expanding the inquiry.
It risks betraying the trust of people whose trust in adults when they were children was shattered, and whose trust in a just world was shattered again and again as adults, as governments appeared to deny responsibility for what had happened to them.
Without that trust the royal commission will not achieve the justice for survivors that the Ardern Government clearly hopes for, and worse, risks adding another layer of pain for people who have already experienced so much.
Australian victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse by New Zealand-born St John of God Brother Bernard McGrath have strongly supported his victims in New Zealand who want the royal commission expanded.
In an email to me on Wednesday, in response to questions, New Zealand Children’s Minister Tracey Martin confirmed that in cases like the notorious St John of God’s Marylands school the commission would only investigate complaints involving children in state care, but not where children were sent to the school by their parents.
This risks the awful situation of two tiers of abuse complainants – those embraced by the royal commission for crimes against them at an institution, and those advised they cannot participate, even if they experienced identical abuse.
The current terms of reference also appear to run the risk of whole church-run facilities being outside the terms of reference, regardless of whether they are subject to extreme child abuse complaints, if there are no children in state care involved.
The New Zealand Government has stressed that the terms of reference can be expanded if it is found to be necessary because of the kind of scenarios I’ve already outlined, but in the meantime some of the most vulnerable people in the community will have been told their childhood abuse was not the kind of abuse the New Zealand Government felt responsible for.
I was in the United Kingdom when its child sexual abuse commission of inquiry was established and quickly imploded after some basic mistakes by the UK Government. Survivors’ trust and community trust ebbed away and I don’t think that inquiry has ever really recovered.
New Zealand survivors are speaking out now. I sincerely hope the New Zealand Government listens.