Wednesday, 24 October 2018
National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse
On Monday of this week, the parliament came together for the national apology to victims and survivors of institutionalised child sexual abuse. This was not an easy day for anyone who was here in Canberra or for anyone else who was affected by this, no matter where in Australia they may have been. It was not an easy day for me, it was not an easy day for any of my parliamentary colleagues and it was definitely not an easy day for the survivors, their families, their loved ones and those who stood beside them, supporting them. It was an incredibly difficult day, an emotional day, for everyone. It was a day that was a very, very long time coming.
The Gillard-led royal commission that engendered this apology was commenced over five years ago now. But, sadly, even that inquiry should have been initiated long before it was. The suffering that has been experienced by many victims has been endured for decades now. This was not fair. This was not right. It should never have happened. The survivors were let down by us all. Over the years, they've been let down by successive governments who wanted to avoid confronting a very difficult topic. But what I feel truly makes things worse is that the governmental inaction was a grim reflection of our society. The atrocities that occurred within Australian institutions were nothing short of vile. They were abhorrent. For each of us, they were shameful. This was a shame that was felt by all Australians who had heard of these atrocities—a shame that disgracefully manifested itself as denial and as inaction. When these victims needed us, they were let down. Some were vilified. Many were ignored. Too few were offered the support they deserved, the support they needed, and for this, for everything, we are sorry. This is something that we as a nation will never forget. We will learn from this, but, more importantly, we will act.
I was there in the Great Hall on Monday. I stood alongside survivors. There were some from my community. Many were from elsewhere around the country. What I witnessed was sheer pain, grief and trauma in that room. I can't pretend as though I can possibly imagine what that feels like. But, as I stood there, my hand held tightly by a survivor beside me, I was able to recognise just how different the experiences of each of these individuals are. There was a man there whom I'd never met before in my life. His name was Adam. He was from Newcastle. I asked him if I could hold his hand. He said yes, and we held hands. At the end of the event, we embraced. He kissed me and said thank you. We were strangers, but, in that moment of holding hands—of sharing in his story, which he briefly shared with me—I will be forever grateful to be part of that day with him.
But, as I looked around the room, I also saw how differently people expressed that pain and grief and trauma, how differently people were personally dealing with that. There were people at many different stages of grief in that room, grief that not one of them should ever, ever have been burdened with. I know that many survivors were grateful for this national apology. I heard how, despite being words, it represented change, it represented a step forward. But I've also heard from survivors who felt this national apology did nothing. For them, it was nothing more than mere words from the mouths of self-congratulating politicians. And others are angry that this national apology brought up old traumas—psychological pain that they carry with them every single day of their lives.
I'm meeting with one of these survivors when I return to the community next week. She wasn't able to be here on Monday. I've known her for some time now. I've always known her to be a very courageous individual. She is a brave leader within our community. When we meet, I'll be there to listen. I'll be there to provide the support that she will ask of me.
I know that survivors and many others see this national apology as having no real consequence—of not being able to undo the past, of not doing enough for them, as survivors of vulgar abuses, now or into the future—and I hear them. For what it's worth, I don't completely disagree. But what I say here and what I say back in our community is that this is not the end; this is the beginning. Where once voices were silenced, now they are being heard. Now it is on us as a society to do the hard work to take the steps we can towards finding some kind of justice.
Sorry may just be a word, but it means a lot more. It means that finally, as a society, there has been a shift. It means that we are acknowledging the past and we are looking forward. It means that, while we can't undo our society's shameful past, we can do what we can to make the present—and, of course, the future—one that no longer causes pain but, instead, alleviates it.