Bending history: the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways….But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

So wrote Theodore Parker who campaigned against slavery in mid-19th century America[1]. His words have been echoed by many others, most notably by Martin Luther King Jr. and US President Barack Obama.

The release today of the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse represents an important contribution to Australia’s arc toward greater justice for those who suffered within orphanages and other institutions that were supposed to care for them.

For much of the past two centuries, our eyes, ears and hearts have been firmly shut to the abuses inflicted on an unknown number of children who lived in orphanages and other institutions in Australia. With rare exception, those who spoke up about their experiences were ignored, silenced or not believed by governments, churches or the community at large.

There are important lessons about the past, and signposts for the future, in the extensive Royal Commission report. Here are a few reflections.

Concerning the past

Over the past five years, the Royal Commission has borne witness to the suffering of adults who, as children, endured life in institutions. The courage of those who came forward to tell their stories has been honoured by the Royal Commission. Over 8,000 survivors or people directly impacted by child sexual abuse in institutions attended private sessions and shared their experiences and recommendations with Commissioners[2].

Adequate redress for survivors of abuse in institutions remains an important objective. In 2016, the Commonwealth Government announced a redress scheme for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse[3]. It is only proper that all governments, as well as institutions that caused harm, participate fully in helping to make amends for the past.

Concerning the future

Looking to the future, the Royal Commission calls us to act with renewed urgency on present-day challenges. Child safety and protection remains a major national problem. Already, the Royal Commission has stimulated important work to help improve the safety of children who have contact with organisations, such as those in the arts and in sporting and youth clubs. Work currently underway, under the auspices of the Council of the Australian Government and the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020, to devise national principles for child safe organisations will be vitally important to advance in 2018[4].

The Royal Commission also urges us to transform our attitudes toward, and actions concerning, children. Last year, his Honour Justice Peter McClellan AM, Chair of the Royal Commission, issued this call:

We are at an important point in the social history of children in Australia. This Royal Commission represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to acknowledge that we, the entire Australian community, failed to care for so many of our children. A failure that has had often devastating consequences. It also represents an opportunity…to give to children the best that we have to give.[5]

This message aligns closely with calls by a growing number of non-government players and researchers for greater attention to be given to the wellbeing and valuing of children, in addition to protection and safety matters.

We already have the ground-breaking National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009-2020, the nation’s first-ever plan to be endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments to tackle child abuse and neglect. Important advances have been made, including the appointment of the first National Children’s Commissioner and the establishment of the first-ever National Standards for Out-of-Home Care.

Building on the foundation of the National Framework, options for the future include the development of a more comprehensive national plan for child wellbeing. Such a plan could contain a national vision statement of aspirations for children and might include strengthened community awareness of, and cultural attitudes about, children and the importance of parenting, and strong priority on early prevention to tackle underlying socio-economic factors that work against child wellbeing and safety.

It might prioritise areas for concerted, special attention, including the First Thousand Days for a Child, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, children with disability, and national consistency for all young people transitioning from care. Considerable work has already been done on possible child wellbeing domains and there is overseas precedent to help guide work, for example, Scotland’s important ‘Getting It Right for Every Child’ initiative[6].

Sustaining the cause

The Royal Commission’s recommendations require careful and detailed analysis; the lessons of the past and the ideas for the future need to be carefully weighed and generously enacted by policymakers. There is little doubt that the Royal Commission has ‘bent history’ in the direction of greater justice. It is vital that that direction is sustained well into the future. Giving children the best we can give deserves no less dedication.

Dr Brian Babington
15 December 2017

[1] Parker, T. 1853. Ten sermons of religion. Crosby, Nichols and Co., Boston, pp. 84-85.

[2] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 2017. ‘Narratives’, retrieved from <https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/narratives?category=All&field_private_session_gender_value=All&field_state_value=All&field_decade_value=All&field_government_value=All&field_atsi_value=All&next=1 >.

[3] Australian Government. 2016. ‘Commonwealth redress scheme for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse’, media release, 4 November 2016, retrieved from <https://christianporter.dss.gov.au/media-releases/commonwealth-redress-scheme-for-survivors-of-institutional-child-sexual-abuse>.

[4] Australian Human Rights Commission. 2017. ‘Child Safe Organisations’, retrieved from <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/childrens-rights/projects/child-safe-organisations>; Babington, B. 2017. ‘The best we have to give: toward safer organisations for children’, retrieved from <http://familiesaustralia.org.au/the-best-we-have-to-give-toward-safer-organisations-for-children/>.

[5] The Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM, address to the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies conference, Sydney, 15 August 2016, retrieved from <https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/media-releases/speeches/association-childrens-welfare-agencies-conference-0>.

[6] Scottish Government. 2017. ‘Getting it right for every child’, retrieved from <http://www.gov.scot/Topics/People/Young-People/gettingitright>.