House debates

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Motions

National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

5:03 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I take those words of the member for Canning, because I know he is a man of deep faith and how much it would have meant to him to utter those words. Today I'm humbled to stand here to join the chorus of voices in this parliament acknowledging what is Australia's great shame, acknowledging how we as a nation have failed so many Australian children—children from all generations, from all walks of life, from every corner of our country and, indeed, children from overseas.

As a member of this parliament, I am sorry. Under our watch and in our institutions too many Australian children endured abuse, leading to lives of heartbreak and loneliness. Those years can never be recovered and the abuse cannot be undone. If there is one thing we can learn from the thousands of people who testified before the royal commission, it is this—believe. When children report abuse, believe them. When children say they are being hurt, believe them. And act. Because it is clear from the testimony that so many children were abused simply because they were not believed. The trusted priest, the beloved uncle, the popular coach or Scout master—what chance did children have against these pillars of society? For decades, the survivors have lived with the abuse they endured. Some lived with it quietly; others campaigned openly for justice. I cannot begin to imagine the feelings that must have swum through survivors' heads when Julia Gillard announced the royal commission—perhaps something like 'At last!' mixed with a profound dread.

Throughout that commission, survivors told their stories, sometimes for the first time. The commission handled more than 40,000 calls and more than 25,000 letters and emails. It held more than 8,000 private sessions and made just under 2,600 referrals to authorities. Recently I read through some of the narratives that appear on the commission's website. The narratives are an important part of this process, providing people with a place to tell their story. The stories are graphic and confronting. Their publication is necessary, and I urge colleagues to read them. The specific detail of each story is different, but they are tragically all the same: happy, innocent children taken advantage of by adults they trusted. Linked by shared experiences of abuse, neglect, isolation and alienation, of growing up with poor mental health, the stories tell of children becoming withdrawn and angry and of far too many adults who failed to listen and failed to help.

A Tasmanian man told of his experiences growing up in a small remote town in the 1930s. He's carried this with him since then! His mother was a devout Anglican and occasionally would provide accommodation for a visiting Anglican priest. He would shower the young boy with compliments and gifts. In his testimony, the man said he was vulnerable to the attention but in hindsight recognises he was being groomed:

… he had the ability to make me feel good. In today's language, he made me feel valued. And that was terribly important to me.

That was the start of a period of regular abuse that lasted until this man reached his early 20s. That was in the 1950s and 1960s, and it's still with him.

A Tasmanian woman tells of the abuse she received from her father. Running away, she became a ward of the state before, at the age of 12, being placed in a convent where she endured further abuse twice a week for more than a year from nuns. She reported it to the mother superior, but was punished, and then to the child welfare officer, who laughed her off. Running away from the convent, she received what she says was good treatment from the police, who she believes did make a formal report to the minister but it was swept under the rug. At 13 years of age, she was placed in a hospital for the mentally ill. She stayed there till she was 18 and was subjected to abuse through those years. Describing the impact that the abuses have had on her life, she says:

It's like a nightmare for the last 45 years … and you never wake up. I can just sit at home and then just all of a sudden I'll start thinking of why they did this. For the love of God I'll never work out why humans do this. I just can't.

She has never been able to seek assistance as she doesn't trust doctors.

Many of the narratives contain similar experiences of being groomed by trusted pillars of the community, of families and friends not knowing what was happening under their roof, of staff in facilities, schools, organisations and clubs abusing children in their charge. Too many Australians have suffered and continue to suffer, both from abuse that occurred in the past and abuse that continues today. At least now, no Australian can ever say they are ignorant about the realities of the institutional abuse of children. Hopefully the abusers, the predators, will have a much more difficult time ahead than they had in the past. But we have a long way to go, and it starts with governments around Australia and the children in the direct care of governments.

According to statistics published in the 2016-17 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report on children in child protection, 48 per cent of children in child protection endured emotional abuse and 24 per cent neglect, 16 per cent were victims of physical abuse and 12 per cent were subjected to sexual abuse. The very first commitment governments around Australia can make is to identify and eradicate the abuse of children who are in government care. This will take money—for more child protection officers, for more mental health services, for more places of safety—but that is a small price to pay to save the lives of children.

It is clear the royal commission started by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard is like few others before it. It was both a commission of inquiry and a vital step towards healing for individuals, organisations and the nation. I thank the commissioners and all associated with the commission for the dedication that they showed during what I can only imagine must have been a very arduous, emotional journey. Yes, the commission was one step in a journey, but none of us must allow it to be the final step. The recommendations of the royal commission are comprehensive and confronting, and must be implemented in full and without equivocation.

Before I depart, I just want to make mention of the fact that we have thanked Julia Gillard, and I'm delighted to add my name to that. She has done a magnificent job in bringing this on. But, being a former journalist, I really do want to note the exceptional work of the Newcastle Heraldand Joanne McCarthy, backed by editors Roger Brock and Chad Watson. This all started back in 1997 in the Newcastle Herald with reporter Jeff Corbett, who reported on court cases involving allegations of pedophilia amongst priests. Back then, the church led a spirited defence of its priests and, in the years since, we've come to know that the allegations, of course, were more than true. So, if it weren't for the dogged determination of Jeff Corbett, Joanne McCarthy, Roger Brock and Chad Watson, print journalists from a little paper in Newcastle, who knows whether we would be having this national apology this week. Joanne McCarthy has written more than 1,000 pieces on this issue over the last 15 to 20 years. It has consumed her life. I've never met the woman but she is a national treasure. The Shine the Light campaign by the Newcastle Herald is a must-read. You must read it because it is undoubtedly that campaign that put us on the path to the royal commission and this apology.

With that, I thank all involved who got us here. It took far too long to get here, but I do wish to commend the role of journalism and journalists in getting us here and thank them for their service.

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