House debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020


National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

6:05 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On 12 November 2012, the then Prime Minister the Hon. Julia Gillard MP announced the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, with an estimated 60,000 children having been abused by those entrusted with their care. The work of the commission concluded when it handed its final report, with 409 recommendations, to the Governor-General on 15 December 2017. The cost of the commission was a staggering $345 million—taxpayer dollars well spent, when one considers the odious prevalence of abuse within our institutions, laid bare for all to see through the commission's work.

Arising from the commission's work was the creation of a single National Redress Scheme intended to provide financial compensation to abuse survivors and, just as importantly, the provision of direct personal responses to survivors from culpable institutions. Institutions identified by the commission have until 30 December 2020 to sign up to participate in the scheme. It is pleasing to see that almost all of those institutions have signed up to fully participate. This will no doubt provide some comfort for survivors, going forward, knowing that they have been heard and that there is contrition, and knowing that they may receive some monetary compensation. To date, I understand that around 8,300 applications have been lodged with the National Redress Scheme, with decisions made on 4,670 of those.

Regrettably there is one notable institution identified in the Prime Minister's statement that is yet to agree to willingly sign up to the scheme. I refer to the Jehovah's Witnesses. They are probably best known amongst the general population as those who don't accept blood transfusions. It is estimated that there are 8.5 million converts worldwide, with approximately 68,000 in Australia. I believe the vast majority of those people are good people, and very faithful to their beliefs. However, the same cannot be said of the organisation's global leadership, who totally control their followers, and about whom I direct my remarks.

Jehovah's Witness activities are banned by over 30 countries in the world. They are one of Canada's wealthiest and least transparent charities. America is the head office of this organisation, with an estimated 1.25 million converts. They don't believe in military service, national anthems or voting. They don't celebrate holidays. They shun those who, in their eyes, go astray, and they believe sins require two witnesses to be verified.

Arising from the royal commission, there were 1,800 Jehovah's Witnesses identified as victims of abuse, 1,006 potential perpetrators and, startlingly, 537 self-confessed perpetrators. As stated by one writer, and as it would appear from the figures available, the Jehovah's Witnesses had the worst rates of child sexual abuse and cover-up of any institution examined by the royal commission. There is no evidence of any referrals to police or other authorities. Clearly, they also believe they are above the law. When faced with a complaint of child abuse within the Jehovah's Witness organisation, the two-witness rule applies. Put simply, this requires an abused child to have an eye witness, independent of themselves, give evidence before Jehovah's Witness elders that they witnessed the abuse complained of by a victim. The practice is fully set out in the report of case study 29, released by the commission in 2016. So what is the justification put forward by the Jehovah's Witnesses to not participate in the national redress scheme? Alarmingly, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they assert that no institutional child abuse occurs. They claim the abuse uncovered is familial abuse. They assert that, because they do not run childcare camps or other social activities that have a child away from the parents, the institution is not responsible and therefore not liable for any wrongdoing. The assertion is facile and does not withstand any scrutiny. The Jehovah's Witnesses exert more control over their flock than any other organisation examined by the commission. They run quasi-judicial hearings into complaints, overseen by their elders. It is seen as a sin for any Jehovah's Witness member to seek assistance from society's correct channels. To do so would lead to one being shunned by the congregation—disturbingly, this includes family members.

The Jehovah's Witnesses are a very wealthy organisation. All assets belong to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and not the local congregants. They call their churches Kingdom Halls, and they are built using congregants' labour and donations. The labour is unpaid and, I understand, at times includes the labour of children. They derive money from deceased estates bequeathed to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society by convening district conventions and circuit assemblies, and through the sale of real estate, which appears to have escalated since the royal commission in Australia and enquiries into their organisations in other countries. Their wealth is estimated in billions, not millions, of dollars. They are more than financially capable of participating in the redress scheme.

No institution is to be congratulated for participating in the redress scheme. It is the only moral path to follow, given the commission's findings. Any institution failing to participate stands to be condemned. The minister has indicated that those institutions failing to join run the real risk of having their charitable tax status revoked. This message was reinforced by the Prime Minister and is supported by Labor. It is a position that I support. The government should immediately withdraw charitable tax status from Jehovah's Witnesses or any other named entity that does not join the national redress scheme.

Over recent weeks, I have been contacted by several people who have raised with me matters of sexual abuse, related suicides and attempted suicides, and the difficulty in ceasing seeking redress or justice through the court system. These are people that were associated with the Jehovah's Witness church. The royal commission, the redress scheme and now the federal government's intervention in bringing the Jehovah's Witnesses to account are their last hopes.

One person who recently contacted me is trying to seek redress through the court system. It is proving to be extremely difficult, and the redress scheme was perhaps the last option for that person. In another case, dealing with suicides, again, the same applies—trying to prove what happened is near impossible, given the culture within that organisation. Therefore the redress scheme was the last and only hope for all of these people. I urge the government to follow through with the commitment to bring to account organisations that do not participate in the redress scheme and to ensure that they are accountable to victims of the abuse that occurred under their watch.

6:13 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I've been thinking a lot about this speech—effectively, ever since the apology was given two years ago. It's for this simple reason: when the Prime Minister and then Leader of the Opposition spoke, they both kept using the words, 'I believe you.'

I was reflecting on the significance of the first people who said that. It's so important for those words 'I believe you' to be said and so reassuring for kids who've gone through all sorts of hell. But we also need to remember that for many, many years no-one was saying that and that the first few people who made that comment were extraordinarily brave and that sometimes we haven't recognised them either. So the apology and everything about it quite rightly is about the individuals who have been the targets of institutional abuse.

One of the natures of abuse is that it is always a person who is a figure of trust. It is always a person who is a figure of authority. So when the allegation is first made by someone who was themselves in a situation of being powerless the person they talk to first often has a whole lot at stake as well.

My final year at school was at the very beginning of when different allegations started to emerge about a number of the Christian Brothers. As I first started to hear the allegations—I'd gone through eight years at the same school, and I'd had no idea as to some of the things that had gone on—no matter how many speeches we make of 'I believe you' the instinctive reaction was, 'That can't be true.' That's your starting point when you hear about a person who had been in a position of trust.

I want to pay tribute to one teacher, by the name of Merv McCormack, who was our year master at school, who I think it's fair to say was arguably the first person for many kids who said, 'I believe you.' His career at that point was on a huge upward trajectory. While he still had a good career, I think it's fair to say that he took a hit for saying three words. Those three words were: I believe you.

It was a few years later that stories about some of the problems that had been within that order emerged. Certainly it was not everybody in that order, and I don't think anyone would take the words that way. But some people within that order had been involved in actions that were the opposite of the reason that a whole lot of other young men had decided to devote their lives to what they believed was a good, noble cause started by a bloke called Edmund Ignatius Rice.

The courage of the first person who said, 'I believe you,' needs to be noted, needs to be remembered and needs to be the challenge for us, because one day it's just as likely to be one of us. As easy as the speeches are now—and they're not easy in an emotional sense—here's the challenge: there will be times that we don't expect, when somebody who we have trusted, who is in a position of authority, has behaved appallingly and in an abusive way behind closed doors. If they weren't in a position of authority, they never would have been in that privileged circumstance of trust. I hope we all have the courage of Merv McCormack, because those words 'I believe you' are powerful in a speech but often really hard for people to say.

No matter how powerless the person who first hears about it might feel, they're a whole lot more powerful than the kid who is reporting to them. They're a lot more powerful than the person who's now an adult who's been holding this information back their entire life.

I've rarely mentioned my school in the time I've been here. In fact, I think it's the first time I have done so. It was a good school for me, a great place. The brothers who were there and the order were all good, as far as my interactions were concerned. But some people had a horrific experience. But it is the case that, around the country, there were people who said, 'I believe you, even though you're the kid, even though you're talking about someone who might be my boss.' That is what teachers at different points would have had to have gone through. I just hope we all have that strength. If we don't, then the apology was, in fact, an event for a day.

The apology won't end occasions where abuse occurs, but it has to end occasions where abuse is covered up. It has to be the end of occasions where the reaction is to say: 'That couldn't possibly be true.' I think that part of the argument, which we sometimes get ourselves into when we're react to child abuse, makes it harder for some kids to report it. Sometimes we get into an argument where we say: 'That person is a monster.' The challenge here is that sometimes people have a series of personas, public versus private, that are radically different, and thinking that we know someone and that something couldn't possibly be true doesn't take you anywhere.

To all those teachers, those parents, those family friends, those admin workers, those counsellors and those members of organisations around the country who have reacted with the words 'I believe you', I simply say: you have been part of the saving of the nation. These sort of crimes are the worst blemishes the nation ever has to consider. I hope that the apology we're remembering today goes some way to helping the victims themselves, the targets—the survivors, which is the term. I also hope that we do remember that group that we probably haven't thought enough about: the first people who said 'I believe you'. A lot of them lost their jobs. A lot of them lost their careers. But all of them protected the country.

6:23 pm

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

In rising to commemorate the second anniversary of the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, I want to join with the other speakers in acknowledging all of those who suffered as a consequence of that abuse. There are people who lost their lives as a consequence of that abuse. They never recovered from the trauma. They were never able to live with what they had been through, and some of them never even disclosed what they had been through. There were children who tried to report what was happening to them and weren't believed. There were children who weren't able to find the words to report what was happening to them and carried it with them into adulthood. There are adults who made their first disclosure later in life. There are adults who made their first disclosure, having thought about it and lived with it for years and years—decades in some cases.

There were victims who did not survive, and there are survivors. Many of those survivors fought for a long time to be able to live with what happened, to be able to bring the perpetrators to justice and to seek the disinfection of sunlight in relation to child sexual abuse.

In my electorate, I want to mention Lotus Place and Micah Projects, who've worked very hard with victims and survivors. All of the people who attend Lotus Place do so because of historical abuse. I also want to mention CLAN and a friend of mine Bill Marklew, who has been an advocate for people who are survivors of abuse. But there are so many more people who stood up and said that as a nation we have to come to terms with what happened. We've got to face up to it. We can't wish it never happened and turn our eyes and divert our gaze. We have to look squarely in the face of what happened so it never happens again.

The royal commission into institutional abuse was a moment for looking squarely in the face of what happened to so many people. It was a national moment for doing that. Thousands of people, 17,000 people, came forward in that royal commission and 8,000 of them shared their stories. It was a massive groundswell of pain that was ventilated at that royal commission, and that was a royal commission that Julia Gillard instituted. I pay tribute to her and the government at the time for doing that. I also pay tribute to the now Prime Minister and the former Leader of the Opposition for making the national apology a little more than two years ago. That apology was a really important moment for all of us, certainly all of us here in this parliament to bear witness while our leaders, our elected leaders, the people the nation chose to speak for them, on behalf of the nation gave that apology. It was an important day, not because it signified the conclusion of shining the light, the conclusion of dealing with these issues, but because it signified an important step at the beginning of that long process.

We have the National Redress Scheme. The National Redress Scheme is incredibly important. You can never compensate for pain. You can never compensate for abuse. You can never compensate for trauma. All the compensation, all the redress and all the funding can be are symbols of the grief, the regret, the apology, the pain. No money in the world is enough to make up for what happened but that's not a reason not to make sure the money isn't adequate to be an expression of the regret, of the pain and of genuine redress.

As at the beginning of November, the scheme had received 8,577 applications. It had made more than 4,900 decisions, issued almost 5,000 outcomes, finalised more than 4,000 applications, including more than 4,000 payments totalling approximately $340.3 million. It had made 588 offers of redress which were currently with applicants to consider, and were processing 4,121 applications. But eight years since the announcement of the royal commission and two years since the apology, survivors in many cases are still waiting and, tragically, some of them are not living long enough to see the finalisation of their applications for redress.

In the last couple of minutes available to me before the debate moves on, I do say it's important to make sure the redress scheme is fit for purpose and accommodates the needs of survivors, particularly those survivors who are elderly, who are frail. It's important as well for those institutions that haven't yet signed on, if they have been named in an application, to do the right thing and sign up. Do the right thing and sign up to the scheme. We on this side have also been arguing for the cap to be lifted to $200,000 rather than the $150,000 the states and the Commonwealth have agreed to. But whatever is done, fairness is important. We should not have a situation where there's insult added to injury, so I do call on the government to make sure they do everything possible to ensure the scheme is fair.

In closing, let me say again to those victims and survivors: as everyone in this debate has said, we believe you, we are grateful for your courage and we hear you.

6:29 pm

Photo of Richard MarlesRichard Marles (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

The anniversary of the apology reminds us of an event which was very significant and this parliament at its best. It comes as a step in a road which began with a Senate enquiry into children in institutional care, which saw the delivery of a Senate report on 30 August 2004 called Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. From then until the apology, we have seen a transformation in the way in which this country has viewed this issue and it's a transformation which I've had the honour of seeing personally over that period as part of my journey in respect of this journey.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It being 6.30, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192B. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed on a future date.