House debates

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Motions

National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

5:37 pm

Photo of Cathy O'TooleCathy O'Toole (Herbert, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I want to start by acknowledging the brave men and women who attended Parliament House on Monday, 22 October to witness their long-overdue apology. They were robbed of their childhood. They were powerless children who were subjected to unspeakable and horrific acts of abuse that were physical, sexual and psychological. I want to acknowledge the courage and commitment of those who gave evidence to the royal commission. Your testimony and evidence has made the difference, and that is why we are finally here and you have finally received your apology. I acknowledge those who campaigned and lobbied tirelessly for the royal commission. Your efforts made it possible for so many to give evidence, and that has led to this apology as well. I want to acknowledge those family members and close friends who have provided support to many victims of abuse over many years and continue to provide that support today. I also want to acknowledge our First Nations people, who also suffered unspeakable abuse, often with no-one to stand by them. I acknowledge those people in my community who experienced such appalling abuse, people like Trish, who has had to live with her experiences for her whole life. This apology was for you too. And I acknowledge those who are sadly no longer with us, those who did not get to witness the apology. Many people have passed away on the journey to justice, sometimes by their own hand, often without revealing their pain to another human being and certainly without acknowledgement or validation, because they could no longer bear the pain; it all became just too much. Your voices have also finally been heard.

It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge those members of the parliament, both current and former serving members, who had the political will and strength to do the right thing, to launch a royal commission into this dark time in our history, into something that so many had swept under the rug for far too long.

I want to thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their sincere words of apology on Monday to the victims of abuse. I also want to acknowledge the work of the commissioners. Their work was critical, but the impact of hearing of such horrendous abuse, day in and day out for years, must have also been incredibly difficult. I also want to acknowledge and thank former Prime Minister Julia Gillard for her commitment and her political courage in establishing the royal commission, because without her drive and commitment I am sure the royal commission would not have happened. She was the Prime Minister with the courage to stand up for the victims of abuse. She also declined to be restrained by the political nervousness and pressure from the powerful institutions. I also want to acknowledge my Labor colleague, the member for Jagajaga, the Hon. Jenny Macklin, who led the way on the royal commission. She worked tirelessly with victims, family members and advocates to ensure that this royal commission did its work.

The royal commission has forced the people of this nation to face a very dark truth. After five years, it found governments, schools, sporting clubs, churches, charities and other institutions had for decades failed to keep children safe. At 11 am on 22 October 2018, the Australian parliament assembled and said sorry to the brave souls who had been betrayed by men of God, by people in power, by people with a duty of care to protect innocence. We said sorry to the many people who had every reason to break but refused to be broken. And, with great humility, we honoured the people who had been spurned but lived to hear their parliament acknowledge their trauma and apologise.

The trust you gave those who were meant to care for you was broken, your innocence betrayed, and there is nothing that can ever be offered to rectify such a wrong. However, with great humility, the national apology offers a beacon of hope—a beacon of hope that says, 'Yes, we believe you.' Time and time again many tried to report injustices, and for years they were not listened to or believed. During this royal commission, as a nation, we asked you to do what would have seemed almost impossible: to tell your story again. You put in every ounce of hope, not knowing whether this time you would be heard, let alone believed. Allow me to offer the little reassurance that is all I can offer: yes, we as a nation believe you, and I believe you.

My mother-in-law was a victim of abuse in an orphanage in South Australia. She was a little girl when she and her sisters and her brothers were separated and put into orphanages. The neglect that she suffered at home was probably much better than that she faced in an institution. She never spoke about her experience at all, except to say that they were in and out of orphanages all the time as children. She lived with the torment of her experiences until she lay on her deathbed, when she had the chance to speak to a mental health nurse a couple of days before she died, and she talked to him about her experiences. She was 86 years old. She was robbed of her childhood and an education, which she would have dearly loved. She loved reading and she often said that she really liked school and that she did quite well but had to leave at the age of 14. I cannot imagine a little girl crying and cold at night with no-one to comfort her. But her story is not an isolated case. Sadly, as we have learned, it is very widespread.

The achievements of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse are a tribute to the victims and survivors, their families and their supporters. Their courage has helped create a culture of accountability and of trust in children's voices that helps all of us take responsibility for keeping children safe, secure and cared for.

But a sorry without action is meaningless. Right now we cannot guarantee that this won't happen again. In 50 years time, I don't want those who came after me to be standing here in this place issuing a second apology to those that we did not protect with carefully crafted legislation. The necessary changes to protect children must be made. From this day forward, this apology must be accompanied by action—actual meaningful change. The government has issued our apology, but we need to legislate to protect children. Failing to do so would make it possible to break the trust of those we said sorry to on 22 October, those who put their trust back in government after the apology to follow through with action to ensure that this does not ever happen again and that every effort is made to ensure that children will be kept safe into the future. If we do not do this then we will have failed those survivors.

I want to assure the survivors that it is our turn as elected representatives to take the baton now. The survivors have told their stories, the recommendations have been made and they have lobbied very hard for change. There will be no greater recommendations than those made by the royal commission. It is now our responsibility in this place to act. We have the power, we have the authority and we have the responsibility to turn these recommendations into action without caveats and without compromise. I make this commitment and I will work every day in this parliament to ensure that we make the changes that are necessary to protect vulnerable children, to ensure that your efforts and courage have not been in vain, to ensure that no child's voice will not be heard or believed again and to ensure that no child is ever a victim of such horrific abuse.

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