Wednesday, 24 October 2018
National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse
On Monday, we reached another milestone in our growth as a nation with the national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child abuse. When in government, the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology to the stolen generations in this very place. Sadly, many of those children were also victims of institutional abuse. I, along with all Australians, have been incredibly distressed by the revelations that were revealed during the royal commission which was instigated by the former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Julia's presence in the House on Monday was warmly acknowledged by all present and so very well deserved. Without her strength of conviction, the victims' stories may never have been told. During a time of political unrest, I'm sure the survivors of this horrific chapter in our history were heartened at the bipartisan approach to proceedings which culminated in the suspension of question time on Monday.
I know that in my electorate of Paterson there are many survivors of child sexual abuse trying to make sense of what happened to them. There are also many families of victims who could not continue to live with the memories and the pain, and they died too soon. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse opened a world of pain for many survivors and their families. For some, this would be the first time in decades they had allowed the memory of what occurred to surface. In many cases, families were not even aware of the burden their loved ones had carried all of their lives.
I was pleased to be able to meet Katie on Monday, who had travelled with her daughter to Canberra in our very small FlyPelican plane from Newcastle Airport, from my electorate, to hear the apology firsthand. Katie is a survivor. At the age of six, she and her sister were abandoned into the hands of the Sisters of St Joseph. In the orphanage, where she stayed for six weeks, she suffered unspeakable abuse. Yet at the age of 97, Katie found the strength to tell her story, to call her abusers to account and to attend here in the nation's parliament to receive an apology from her Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition stood together and said 'I'm sorry, and we believe you'. At the age of 97, it is well and truly long overdue, but so well deserved.
I want to add my voice to tell those who avenue suffered at the hands of people who were supposed to protect them, to the survivors and to their families of those who did not survive, I am sorry, I believe you and I admire your resilience.
I would also like to thank the tireless work of Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy, who continued to listen to victims and, importantly, to write about their horrors at a time when it was incredibly difficult to do so. Joanne's empathy and advocacy in no small part led to the issue gaining momentum. I can still remember her shock and delight at receiving a letter from the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, thanking her for her work in helping make the royal commission a reality. I know it is still one of Jo's most treasured possessions.
I just want to take leave from my prepared speech for a moment to also acknowledge the member for Newcastle, who sits in the chair of the Federation Chamber on this day in 2018. I want to thank her for her tireless effort in the representation of the people of Newcastle, knowing that it really was, in many points, the focal point for much of the abuse. Shine the Light ,which the Fairfax newspaper Newcastle Herald led, was important, but your advocacy was also very important for our communities.
I would like to recognise Pat Feenan. Pat is the mother of four boys. Her son Daniel is the eldest of those. Daniel was brutally sexually abused by the notorious Father James Fletcher, known as Jim Fletcher to his congregation, from the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. One of the more shocking aspects of the case against Jim Fletcher was how the priest, who was a close family friend of the Feenans, set about grooming not just a young boy but the entire family. He was later found guilty of nine charges in a public trial in 2004. Jim Fletcher passed away in prison in 2006.
Pat was not to be defeated or worn down by the horrors that her family had endured. Not only was her precious boy completely abused, in every sense of the word, but her family were ostracised from the one thing that they had had in their life as their rock, the Catholic Church. Pat was not to be defeated. She set to and wrote a book called Holy Hell, and if I can commend any literature to anyone who is at all remotely interested in this story, it is powerful and personal, yet it portrays what happened to her family in a very sensitive way. I want to commend her for being brave enough to write it. The book is called Holy Hell. Thank you, Pat, for sharing it. I read it a number of years ago. Before I was elected to this place, I worked in the media. Talkback radio was the main part of the media that I worked in, and I had the pleasure of interviewing Pat. It was probably one of the hardest interviews I've ever done, as she recounted to me what she'd written about and what had happened to her family.
I also had the great honour of talking many times to Joanne McCarthy on the radio about her work. I asked: 'How do you keep doing this? How do you keep the strength?' She said: 'Meryl, the people keep coming to me with their stories. When you sit with them and hear the stories, there's just no way you couldn't write about them.' I'm highlighting these two individuals because they were brave enough to write about their stories. It's the way that we saw convictions come to pass. So, whilst the royal commission was incredibly important, the shared experiences and the bravery of those people is most important.
Returning to Monday, it was such an emotional day for everyone. While an apology to the victims and survivors of institutional sexual abuse is a start, it is not the end. In the spirit of bipartisanship that started this process, we must continue. The royal commission has made a suite of recommendations, and they must be actioned. Peter Gogarty, another survivor from Newcastle, has said it will mean nothing if we don't do something about the recommendations and put them into place. Doing nothing is just not an option. Justice is deserved, demanded and it must be delivered. Many of the recommendations included in the report focus on prevention. Sadly, there are still many children, for reasons that we don't know, who remain with their family members and find themselves in foster care and other types of temporary and permanent care today. In fact, I know that in the Newcastle and Maitland area there are up to 60 children, at times, every night in a motel room.
As a society, we must ensure that in another 20 or 30 years we are not hearing the same stories as those revealed during this royal commission. We must listen to those who lived the horrors and the experts who formulated the response and, as the Leader of the Opposition said on Monday:
It is now the moral duty of this parliament and future parliaments not to second-guess the royal commission but just to implement the recommendations of the royal commission.
To everyone who forced us not to look away, thank you and well done. I hope that this acknowledgement will help heal long-held trauma and emotional scars. Thank you.
Federation Chamber adjourned at 18:53