Child safety is measure of abuse inquiry's success

For years, David* was so ashamed and embarrassed about the sexual abuse he suffered at a Lutheran children's home in the 1960s, he could not tell even his mother.

But when the middle-aged father came to a private hearing at the royal commission on child sex abuse a few months ago, the floodgates finally opened.

"I want to just look him in the eye and say, why did you do what you did to me?" David said of his tormentor during the hearing, part of which was released publicly by the commission this week.

"Do you know what effect it's had on my life and others? I just wish it would go away, but I've got to take it to the grave with me."

Like so many victims of child abuse across the country, the royal commission has given David the opportunity to reveal long-hidden secrets from a childhood most of us find difficult to imagine.

Just how many victims have followed in his footsteps became alarmingly clear this week when it was revealed in the commission's first interim report that, although 1700 people have been interviewed over the past two years, it will take until at least 2017 for the remaining voices to be heard.

So far, the commission has witnessed alarming revelations about abuse of children as well as attempts by senior figures from some of the country's biggest religious and non-religious institutions to cover up that abuse.

But can its lofty goals of achieving systemic change and hearing every voice, as demanded by Parliament, ever be achieved?

"You may ask, well, 'will it ever end?' " says Dr Patrick Parkinson, a law professor at Sydney University, who specialises in child protection.

"If you want to listen to everyone who wants to tell you their story, that is certainly a challenge.

"It's a challenge [that stems from] the balance they're trying to achieve, between improving responses to abuse and bearing witness to those who have been abused."

Among the important questions facing the commission as it pursues the goal of justice is how victims can be properly compensated and assisted.

Its report states that nine out of 10 victims who received compensation from an institution were unhappy with the result, and some were actually re-traumatised by the litigious, combative nature of the process.

So far, the commission has identified a wish-list of elements for a compensation scheme, including financial compensation, continuing therapy, and a commitment by the institution to raise public awareness and prevent recurrences.

"A number of institutions have advocated for a national scheme, but how it would work and who would fund and administer it are complex issues," the report says.

Adults Surviving Child Abuse president Dr Cathy Kezelman is adamant that a redress scheme must include continuing therapeutic support for victims.

"We certainly know that with the right support, people can do a lot better," Kezelman says.

"We need funding for a national training program for GPs and another for health professionals so they can assist people who have suffered the trauma of abuse. Unresolved trauma is a massive issue and it's one the institutions have not done enough to address."

Though they have been the target of heavy criticism during the course of the inquiry, several institutions have begun changing or at least promising to change their policies and practices.

The YMCA, which was lambasted by the commission this week for systemic and individual failures in its child protection strategy, has announced a suite of reforms.

These include a consistent approach to pre-employment screening, regular testing of child protection policy knowledge among staff, and a review of the culture within the organisation.

The Salvation Army surprised many by publicly accepting that, in certain circumstances, it was "vicariously liable" for the abuse committed by those operating within its halls, even when it was unaware the offences were happening.

"We accept that our policies and practices at that time were not sufficient to protect children," its commissioner, James Condon, said.

"The Army will accept that it is vicariously liable for the conduct of such perpetrators in the event any claim is brought against it."

The comments have caused a considerable stir because of the potentially huge ramifications if institutions were to accept responsibility for abuse committed by employees that they knew nothing about.

Parkinson warned that, should vicarious liability be made retrospective – that is, institutions being required to atone for acts they were unaware of in the past – it could bankrupt them.

"You need to ask whether you want to force these institutions to close some of the beneficial services they provide – sports clubs, homeless support services, looking after the sick and elderly," he said.

"These institutions play a hugely important role in our community. They are they are the glue that holds some of these communities together and we will be in a much poorer place if these institutions are taken away."

Despite their attempts to make amends, organisations such as the Salvation Army have suffered enormous damage to their reputations as a result of the commission's revelations, leading some to question whether they might permanently fade from view.

The recent Red Shield Appeal, for so long a standout event on the country's charity calendar, has been the target of social media campaigns calling for a boycott in protest at the abuse meted out to children in the Army's care.

"I think it will take a long time for some of these institutions to earn back people's trust after the harm that has been done," Kezelman says.

Important though it may be, public denouncement of abuse and its perpetrators is not the primary objective, she says.

 "The most fundamental measure of success will be [reducing] the number of children who are harmed, over time, in church institutions, in out of home care, in educational settings.

"We've seen many inquiries and many recommendations, but this time we want real, long-lasting change.

"What measures will be put in place? Will we have national mandatory reporting laws? Will we have a national system of employment checks?

"The sheer fact that this commission is taking place at all – that people are talking about issues that were hidden for so many years – is a positive thing."

In the interim report, the commission declared that an extra $104 million was needed for a two-year extension so it could bear witness to the many who had suffered, help them get justice, and attempt to ensure that such suffering never happened again.

"If the royal commission is not extended, we will not be able to hold a private session for any person who contacts us after September this year," the report states.

"This will deny many survivors of the opportunity to share their experiences with us, in particular those from vulnerable or hard-to-reach groups."

* Name changed to protect identity

This story Child safety is measure of abuse inquiry's success first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.