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
The preface and executive summary of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse clearly reveal the gravity of the matters that this legislation, the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Bill 2018, seeks to address, and the extent of a problem that, for too long, too many people, too many government departments and too many sectors of society preferred to ignore. What was occurring was an inconvenient truth that society was not prepared to confront. As with the royal commission into banking, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse should have been initiated years earlier. The incidence of child sexual abuse, both within the home and throughout the community, was the subject of regular community conversation. Yet no authority was prepared to act—until the Gillard government did, in November 2012. The royal commission announcement at the time was met with widespread acclamation. Finally, society was responding and doing so with a royal commission. From what I've read of the report of the commission, the commission itself is to be commended—as are the 680 people who, I understand, over the years have worked with the commission—for its work, which appears to be thorough and frank.
Child abuse, regrettably, has been a historical fact of life across all continents, all cultures and all generations. Whether today's world is any better, I don't know. But I have little doubt that, as we debate this legislation, children, in Australia and overseas, continue to be exploited and abused.
I acknowledge and support the growing calls for a royal commission into abuse of people with a disability. They too have stories to tell and are pleading to be heard. The sexual abuse of innocent, vulnerable children would have to be amongst the most abhorrent acts of humanity. To violate children and to destroy their lives while they are in the care of those entrusted to protect them is beyond the comprehension of all decent people. Yet it happened, and it continues to happen all too often.
For the benefit of anyone following this debate, I want to quote excerpts of the commission's preface and executive summary, which I believe provides real context to their report. The preface says:
In 1997, Bringing them home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families outlined allegations of institutional sexual abuse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
The reports of two later major national inquiries, Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children in 2004 and Protecting vulnerable children: A national challenge in 2005, recommended the establishment of a Royal Commission into the sexual assault of children and young people in institutions after those inquiries heard further allegations of institutional child sexual abuse. These recommendations were not taken up by government at the time.
… … …
Over 16,000 individuals have contacted the Royal Commission and by the time we conclude our work we expect to have heard more than 8,000 personal stories in private sessions. Over 1,000 survivors have provided a written account of their experience …
We now know that countless thousands of children have been sexually abused in many institutions in Australia. In many institutions, multiple abusers have sexually abused children. We must accept that institutional child sexual abuse has been occurring for generations.
… For many, sexual abuse is a trauma they can never escape …
… … …
However, notwithstanding the problems we have identified in institutions, the number of children who are sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far exceeds those who are abused in an institution.
The executive summary goes on to say:
The sexual abuse of a child is a terrible crime. It is the greatest of personal violations … It is one of the most traumatic and potentially damaging experiences and can have lifelong adverse consequences.
Tens of thousands of children have been sexually abused in many Australian institutions. We will never know the true number. Whatever the number, it is a national tragedy, perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions.
… … …
Our criminal justice system has created many barriers to the successful prosecution of alleged perpetrators. Investigation processes were inadequate and criminal procedures were inappropriate. Our civil law placed impossible barriers on survivors bringing claims against individual abusers and institutions.
It is remarkable that in so many cases the perpetrator of abuse was a member of an organisation that professed to care for children.
I pause for a moment at that point to quote one of the statements from one of the victims who gave evidence to the commission. That person says:
What really gets me is how respected the staff … were in the community and how they used us for fund raising and to promote themselves as doing good works, when all the time we were treated as slaves, beaten and abused, used for their perverted desires. These were terrible years. No love or kindness, no safety or warmth. Always hungry and always frightened.
Just as remarkable was the failure of the leaders of those institutions to respond with compassion to the survivor.
I want to again quote from the introduction of the report. It says:
At the time of writing this report, we had analysed the experiences of 6,875 survivors as told to us in private sessions up until 31 May 2017.
I want to quote these statistics:
From those survivors, where the information was available, we learned that:
… … …
More than one in three survivors (36.0 per cent) said they were sexually abused in pre-1990 out-of-home care—primarily in residential institutions, such as children's homes, missions or reformatories. Just under one-third … said they were abused in a school, and 14.5 per cent said they were abused while involved in religious activities, such as attending a church or seminary. More than one in five survivors … said they were sexually abused in more than one institution.
I quoted those extracts and statistics because they confirm what was widely perceived to be the case and to many people probably came as no surprise. Several issues arise from the commission's preface and introductory comments—in particular, the government's failure to act on previous inquiry recommendations. Now several royal commission recommendations are also being ignored by the government in respect to this legislation. That in itself is of concern. We have failed to respond to previous royal commission recommendations, and we now appear to be doing the same.
That, once abused, victims are scarred for life and can never free themselves of the trauma is also of real concern. I'll come back to that in a moment, as to the matter of a person who is currently in jail and the government's proposal that someone who is facing a sentence of more than five years should be treated differently. But what concerns me the most, perhaps, as to the royal commission's findings, is that most of the abuse still occurs within familial places, including in the victim's own home. My question is: what is being done about that? Again, I see very little.
It's also of concern that it's still very difficult for a victim to get justice. Indeed, the failure of civic and institutional leaders to protect their victims has been, and continues to be, of concern. For many institutional leaders, it seems that their priority was to protect the reputation of their institution. Law enforcement and judicial systems were also ill equipped to deal with allegations.
The case of St Ann's Special School in South Australia is a prime example of those failures. Brian Perkins was employed as a bus driver at St Ann's Special School between 1986 and 1991. At the time he was employed, he had a long history of sexual and other crime convictions. South Australian police received information about sexual offences against children at St Ann's school perpetrated by Perkins in 1991. It took 12 years to bring Perkins to justice and subsequently have him imprisoned.
Labor leader Bill Shorten has outlined Labor's response to this legislation, as has the member for Jagajaga—who, I might add, has been a key instigator of the process that has brought us to this point today, and I commend her for that. I therefore only comment on one particular matter relating to the government's response, and that is the matter relating to the qualified ability of victims who are serving more than five years in prison to access redress. These are people who, very likely, are imprisoned as a consequence of the abuse perpetrated upon them. To deny them redress will be a penalty additional to that applied and intended by the sentencing court at the time they were sentenced, and thereby it will add to the victimisation that they have already endured. It seems to me that it is perpetrating one injustice on top of another, and I would urge the government to reconsider that recommendation in particular.
Other members of the Labor opposition have expressed concerns with respect to a range of other recommendations where the government is deviating from the recommendations of the royal commission. I support each and every one of the comments in respect of those other recommendations and, in particular, the time frame being allowed with respect to the making of claims. To say to people who have endured the suffering that they have for most of their lives, 'We want you to act within a six-month period'—or whatever other time frame they are given—'otherwise you will lose whatever right you have,' again, is an injustice. It seems to me that it shouldn't be a matter of time frames. I thought that the member for Parramatta put it beautifully when she made the point that the time frame should rest entirely with the victims.
I close with these comments. We cannot change what has happened in the past. We cannot undo the grave offences that have been committed against so many people over so many years. And, as others have said, for so many, even this report and these recommendations are too late. However, I would hope that as a result of the royal commission's work, these findings will bring about a culture change throughout society; a culture change throughout government and non-government sectors; and a culture change in our law enforcement and judicial bodies. This is so that the commission's recommendations are not just words on paper in the 17 volumes that I understand is the total amount of the report they'll be presenting but that the commission's findings become a turning point in how society sees its responsibility for the protection of the most vulnerable amongst us. It is a change for those to come that we can do something about, and I hope that at the very least the commission's work will lead to that change so that in the future there will not be the level of abuse that we know has occurred to date.