House debates

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Motions

National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

12:49 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Fowler, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I think it's fair to say that Monday was a deeply emotional day, not only for people in the House but for those who were actually able to join us. We saw the parliament come together and unite to deliver the national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sex abuse. That abuse was something that clearly should never have occurred, but it was something that did, and it occurred under our collective watch as the Australian government and as those in authority. This occurred, and it is only right that we say sorry. It's right that we say sorry for what occurred to children and apologise as profoundly as we can. We also say sorry for our ignorance and for our collective failure to listen to the words of children when they complained. As a nation, we accorded more respect to those in authority than to those who were laying the complaints, being children.

While saying sorry is a very small step towards justice for survivors, it's certainly a recognition that finally, after far too long, as a nation we are listening and we recognise these past injustices suffered by children at the hands of people who are and were entrusted with power. The apology is an acknowledgement that successive governments have grossly failed in their responsibilities to protect the most vulnerable in our communities, particularly children. To all those children who had their childhood robbed, and who no doubt suffered and continue to suffer abuse-induced trauma, the apology is not enough. Perhaps some will see it as simply words or simply being symbolic, but it is more. It is certainly a commitment that we, as a nation, must do better.

As I say, the apology is not just about words. I'm not referring to the adequacy or otherwise of the National Redress Scheme or the levels of financial compensation that follow. It does mean that we acknowledge the harm and the hurt that occurred to children and that continues to permeate through their lives and the lives of their families. It's significant that we acknowledge the abuse that occurred and make our apologies on behalf of the whole community. I understand that for many this will never be enough—nor should it be—particularly when they have suffered at the hands of people in positions of authority or positions of trust and respect within the community. No words can actually change the past, but it is a significant step that we, on behalf of the nation, acknowledge what did occur. It wasn't the fault of children; they were the victims in situations that were contrived, in many respects, to protect children. It was those very institutions that caused the harm.

It's most important for any government that we protect citizens. We always say it is the first role of government to protect our citizens. Probably coming ahead of that is the fact that we protect those who are vulnerable and, clearly, children were seen to be most vulnerable in these arrangements. We hear stories about those that have been abused by governments, police, courts throughout the law, foster parents, orphanages, teachers, schools, sporting clubs, scout groups, churches, charitable organisations—that's a very wide list in the community. It reflects on various structures and organisations within the community which are designed to actually do good, yet people have been able to use the power vested in them by the membership of those organisations to carry out evil. We acknowledge our failures in this regard.

We also acknowledge what is carried by the survivors and by those who regrettably did not survive. We heard on Monday of those who have already taken their own lives. They couldn't be there. Nothing will change those events, but we must make sure that they are not simply committed to another volume of Hansard. This must be a lived truth, one that we maintain; otherwise, it will just simply be words.

Having grown up, as many in this place have, with the benefit of faith based education, I've got to say that I was oblivious to these actions occurring. I find it hard to understand. It's utterly reprehensible that people of faith could contemplate such evil undertakings against children, hiding behind their position of trust, hiding behind what the community thought of religious leaders, sporting leaders and scout leaders. They hid behind their position to simply participate in evil. Whether they're your kids or my kids and now my grandkids, children require unconditional love. Unfortunately, these past injustices have in many instances not only destroyed the survivors' faith in humanity but also shaken their belief in God. How could this be allowed to occur?

There are many families who, regrettably, have been affected by this institutional abuse. One of my cousins had a very similar education to me. He also attended a Catholic school. But, unlike me, he was a victim of abuse. He suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest. Not only have I seen what this incident has done to him; I have seen the toll that it has taken on his family and those around him who love him. Good religious and charitable works administered by many of our institutions, whether they be schools, orphanages or institutions that look after people in need, have been undermined. It has destroyed much of the credibility of these organisations, despite their overwhelming motivation for good and for fulfilling a genuine interest and need in our community.

I want to pay tribute first and foremost to the victims and acknowledge the survivors who were brave enough to tell their stories to the royal commission. I also acknowledge those who are not able to be with us, having already taken their own lives. I understand that, for those who did present their stories to the royal commission, it must have been incredibly painful for them. We can't forget their courage in doing so.

Like the member for Lalor, I would also like to pay tribute to the courage and determination of the former member for Lalor, Prime Minister Gillard, for initiating the royal commission. I think it did take courage and determination on her part. It was something that she described as causing her many sleepless nights, but it has been shown to be the right thing to do. The commission was able to undertake the work that it did over a period of five years. I think it has been an incredible power of good in our community. I also take this opportunity to acknowledge the royal commissioners and their staff, who have served their community well and listened to these incredibly heartbreaking stories. This apology does not mark the end of a journey but rather the beginning of a new level of protection for children.

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