House debates

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Matters of Public Importance

National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018, National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2018; Second Reading

6:00 pm

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | Hansard source

In 1976, I was still a student at Maitland Marist Brothers, as it was then known. One day that year, year 7 student Patrick Garnham was summonsed over the loudspeakers to report to the principal's office. Brother Nestor was not inviting Patrick in for a chat. It was, of course, about something more sinister than I could have ever imagined as a year 9 student. Another year 9 student that year was David O'Hearn, later Father O'Hearn, who spent some time serving my own local Cessnock Catholic parish. O'Hearn was later found guilty of 44 child sex offences. The ages of the victims ranged from nine to 13. Outrageously, rather than offering contrition, O'Hearn fought his charges all the way to the High Court. For a number of years Father Vince Ryan was my local parish priest. He was later jailed for 14 years for numerous atrocities involving young boys.

On the Anglican side of the Christian divide, Father Peter Rushton turned out to be a serial child sex abuser throughout his 40-year career in service to his church. I would often converse with Peter Rushton at official local events. He was always quite pious in his language. Of course, I was totally oblivious to his real and evil character. Rushton, we later learned, would cut the backs of his victims with a knife, drawing the blood of Christ, while anally raping them.

The now infamous St Alban's Home for Boys, where young boys were basically prostituted out by clergymen, was in my hometown from around 1964. The home was always a bit mysterious to me as a young boy. I do, though, remember feeling sympathy for the mainly Indigenous boys who called it their home. But I could not have imagined or comprehended at that age the evil that took place inside that building. The question becomes: how could we have been so blind to this institutionalised evil?

We all like to think it could never happen again, and to that I say, maybe. The answer can be found in culture and in indoctrination. We were raised not to question the church or its methods. We were told that everything that happened, happened for a reason—it was the will of God. The disintegration of this unchallenged edifice eventually came because of the courage of so many victims, some of whom I know. Today we say we believe them and that we weep with them. We thank them for their courage, because it may have saved another generation from the same fate they suffered. We also thank those who helped them, who helped the victims to tell their stories, to secure justice and, hopefully, to find some closure—journalists like the Newcastle Herald's Joanne McCarthy, who relentlessly pursued the perpetrators, no doubt under enormous pressure to back off, and those like local detective Peter Fox, who paid a heavy personal price for his energetic, determined and robust pursuit of offending clergymen and those who protected them, and there were many.

This bill will not heal the emotional or physical wounds. It's far too late for that, but we do hope it helps. The bill is not perfect—far from it. I do acknowledge how difficult it is to navigate so many challenges, such as the agreement of the states and no doubt plenty of advice from lawyers about the minefields which lie ahead. We all remember that we were told by the lawyers that the Commonwealth shouldn't apologise to the stolen generation, since it would open up all sorts of legal problems for the Commonwealth. Of course, we now know that not to be true. I'm particularly disappointed that those who have been imprisoned for more than five years have been excluded from this redress scheme. I say that because it's more than possible—in fact, very likely—that many of them were victims themselves and possibly their experiences led them to offend in the first place.

I shared my own stories about my school and my local parish for an obvious reason. It's to acknowledge that the Hunter region, very tragically, has been the epicentre of all these crimes that were committed over such a long period of time. That is something of which we are not proud of at all; but we are all very proud of the victims, the way they came forward and those who supported them in their determination to find justice not only for themselves but for many others. I vividly recall calling the then Catholic bishop of Maitland-Newcastle just the day before then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced she'd be establishing a royal commission. I called him out of courtesy to inform him that later that day I would be issuing a statement calling upon a royal commission. I told him that the situation was now overwhelming and had to be properly and fully acted upon. To his credit, the bishop made no attempt to dissuade me.

Let us never again allow religion to be used as a shield against evil. Let the church and let faith continue to play a positive role and let it continue to do its good things—and it does do good things—but let us never allow it again to shield evil. Let us never again be so naive, ignorant or, worse, complacent. What occurred over many decades, and probably for centuries, is a reflection on all of us. We did not know, but we should have known. That's the truth of it. We should have known. Let us never make that mistake again. Let us be forever mindful that there will always be evil amongst us.

Tonight, indeed, young children will be sexually and physically abused in their own homes around our modern, wealthy nation state. That is a reality we continue to face. It is in no small part up to us here in the national parliament to stop the extent to which that continues to occur. We bear a heavy responsibility and we should exercise our power very, very wisely and very, very diligently. For me, our key tool is education. It is the great circuit-breaker. If we want equality of opportunity and if we want to stop abuse happening behind closed doors, we will not be successful without appropriate and smart investment in our education system. It's up to us. It's up to us to do everything we can to stop this evil continuing in our society, and it's up to us tonight to hope and pray that victims everywhere gain something from the bill which will no doubt pass the House in a little while.


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