Commissioner McClellan addresses 14th Assembly

The power of institutions must never again be allowed to silence a child nor must it be allowed to diminish the preparedness or capacity of adults to act to protect children.

That was one of the key messages delivered by the Chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Justice Peter McClellan, to the 14th triennial Assembly of the Uniting Church.

Justice McClellan, speaking to a hushed gathering, said he was sure that all hoped the tragic personal stories and institutional failures revealed by the Commission’s public hearings to date would serve as an important reminder that both individual institutions and governments had failed in their responsibility for children.

“Where once silence was demanded, a child’s complaint, however tentative in its communication, must be heard and given an appropriate response,” he said.

“Whatever the nature of the institution and however its members are respected by the community we must all accept that there may be members of trusted institutions who fail in their duty towards children.”

Justice McClellan said Commissioners sometimes heard stories of people who, despite traumatic childhood experiences, had not lost their capacity to love and care for others.

“We have witnessed humour and ingenuity among survivors. But we have also seen profound sorrow, grief and pain that for many may never go away,” he emphasised.

Justice McClellan also confirmed that the Commission would conclude at the end of 2016, and it was still averaging about 50 applications per week for private sessions.

He also said that the Royal Commission has, so far, received 13,256 allegations within its terms of reference and, of these, 399 were in respect of abuse by members of Uniting Church institutions. This figure represents about three per cent of the total figure.

A further 106 allegations have been received in respect of abuse by members of Presbyterian Church institutions, and 62 in respect of abuse by members of Methodist Church institutions. The majority of these relate to incidents before 1977.

Of the 399 allegations against members of Uniting Church institutions, 173 relate to institutions involved in out-of-home care, and a further 164 relate to boarding schools.

The Uniting Church institution with the highest number of allegations is Sydney’s Knox Grammar School with 137 allegations. Knox was the subject of a public hearing of the Royal Commission in February 2015.

In total, the Commission has received allegations in relation to 132 institutions which were Uniting Church, Presbyterian or Methodist institutions.

Justice McClellan said the Commission’s report on redress and civil litigation will be handed to the Federal Government by the end of August this year, and it will report on sentencing in child sexual abuse in institutional contexts and on “Working with Children Checks” shortly.

He said the only opportunity for justice for many victims will be through an effective redress scheme.

The issue of redress raised a range of complex questions, including who should be eligible, how a scheme should be funded, who should manage it, and what benefits it should provide.

“For redress to be effective it must respond to the ongoing needs of survivors. It is clear that survivors need an apology from the institution. There must also be funding for counselling and psychological care.

“A money sum which adequately recognises the wrong done to the individual is also essential.

“It is now accepted that abuse can impact a survivor’s personal development in a number of ways. It can affect an individual’s ability to complete their education, to maintain a job and to establish personal relationships.”

Justice McClellan said a monetary payment by the institution concerned could serve the dual purposes of recognising the harm suffered by the survivor, and providing financial assistance to the many people who, as a result of their abuse, are struggling to secure the basics of life.

He said almost all institutions and survivor groups favoured a national scheme, administered by the Commonwealth but funded by the relevant institutions, including the various governments where institutional failures have occurred.

“This is self-evidently the approach which will meet the objective of equal justice for survivors.”

He said “Working with Children” checks were one tool that helped to ensure the right people were selected to work with children.

“They have been considered in public hearings conducted by the Commission and have been a focus of investigation as part of our policy and research program.

“This is the first step in the development of comprehensive recommendations designed to create a safe environment for children in an institution.”

Justice McClellan noted that when the Commission’s work was completed it will obviously have documented a period in Australian society when institutions failed the children in their care.

“I do not mean to condemn every institution. It is clear that many were managed and sustained by the efforts of both volunteers and paid workers who understood how to manage an institution that provides for the welfare of children,” he said.

“But even then we can recognise that many well-intentioned people did not understand and did not respond to failures which should have been obvious in the institutions of which they were part.

“Although the primary responsibility for the sexual abuse of an individual lies with the abuser and the institution of which they were part, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the problems faced by many people who have been abused are the responsibility of our entire society.”

Read the full speech here.