Wednesday, 24 October 2018
National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse
National apologies are a point for a country to look at its past through the harsh eye of the present, and to own up to the wrongdoings of current or past generations. We think of the moment when Britain apologised for the treatment of protesters on Bloody Sunday, when the United States apologised for its internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, when the Papacy apologised for the persecution of Galileo, when Japan apologised for its treatment of comfort women and, of course, when Australia apologised for the treatment of the stolen generations.
These are not a moment in which the hurt goes away and in which all the harm is suddenly absolved by dint of an apology, but they are crucial moments for a nation to own up to its past and to say, 'We did the wrong thing and we will endeavour to do better in the future.' That's what this House is doing with this apology today to the victims of childhood sexual abuse by institutions.
Shortly before the apology, I met with Hannah Coleman-Jennings. She was 2½ when she was sexually abused in a day care centre in Sydney in 1996. She still experiences flashbacks, which she describes as PTSD. She has attempted to take her own life on multiple occasions and uses medication to get through the day—indeed, to get through the traumatic experience that was the apology. For her, sitting in the gallery was a difficult moment, even with the support of her husband, Connor Coleman-Jennings. As she told TheCanberra Times:
I am happy we are now talking about this. Evil happens in the darkness when we turn our backs. Hopefully by talking about this, by raising awareness and really focusing on the abuse of children we can stop it happening in the future …
Hannah thinks she was probably the youngest person in the gallery when the apology took place. She said that was particularly hard:
When people think of child sexual abuse, they think of something that's happened in a 1970s boarding school. It's hard for people to wrap their minds around the fact that this is still happening today. This happens. It happened. Society failed us by letting this happen and it should never happen again.
I acknowledge Hannah's strength and that of Connor and her mother, Nikki Coleman, who was there when I met with them on Monday.
Another Canberran, Damian De Marco, was made the 2015 ACT Local Hero after he spent four decades fighting to prevent other children from sharing his experience of abuse. He was sexually assaulted by a Marist Brother in the 1980s and battled for the perpetrator to be removed from the education system and brought to justice. He rejected anonymity, he risked his own reputation and in 2014 he was one of those who, like Hannah, gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
One of the most awful stories which I've read is that of Wilma Robb, transferred from Parramatta Girls Training School to the Hay Institution for Girls as a 15-year-old. She was told at the time by an officer:
Welcome to Hay. We will either make you or break you. Your choice.
She said that girls as young as 13 were forced to perform hard physical labour. They had to look at the ground. They were forbidden from speaking to each other. Everything from toilet paper to food was strictly rationed. The girls were forced to march everywhere and were punished if they didn't sleep in the correct position: on their right side with their hands visible. She spoke of how she was sexually assaulted and the impact that that had on her. Now in her late 60s she is continuing as a campaigner for people who endured abuse in state-run institutions.
There were those who spoke out against the royal commission when it was announced and said that then Prime Minister Julia Gillard was simply playing politics. With the bipartisan apology I hope they have had an opportunity to reflect, now the evidence has come forward, on the statements they made at the outset of this inquiry. Labor welcome the national apology but believe we will be judged in this place not only by our words but also by our actions. There's no excuse for any state government, church, institution or non-government organisation to not join the national redress scheme. We believe the recommendations of the royal commission should be implemented in full. The former shadow minister for social services, Jenny Macklin, has said:
We strongly encourage the Turnbull Government to increase the maximum compensation amount to survivors to $200,000, as was recommended by the Royal Commission.
We believe that all survivors should be eligible for redress, including those who have sustained criminal convictions. We know that the cycle into which many of the victims of abuse were thrown did on occasion result in criminal convictions.
There are more than 60,000 survivors of institutional sex abuse, and in these short few minutes I have been speaking here I have covered only three tales. It is a tiny fraction of the harm that has been done, but we as a parliament recognise that harm, we apologise as a parliament on behalf of the nation to those who suffered abuse and we vow to do better in the future.