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Stories Australia won’t recover from

The volumes of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse sit on the table before the signing ceremony of the release of the papers at Government House, Canberra, 15 December, 2017. Photo: Jeremy Piper
The volumes of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse sit on the table before the signing ceremony of the release of the papers at Government House, Canberra, 15 December, 2017. Photo: Jeremy Piper

 

OPINION

AUSTRALIA will never recover from the royal commission into institutional child abuse because of the courageous individuals who told their stories.

But also because of the contrast their painful openness made with the protections provided to the powerful.

In February last year, an elderly chap was seen by me and many other Australians watching live television coverage of child abuse hearings by the royal commission in Ballarat.

He stood in what looked like a courtroom dock and told his horror story in a stumbling, matter-of-fact manner which did not diminish the dreadful nature of what had happened to him.

He was no glib witness, even with the aid of crumpled notes.

At one point he said his memory was vague about what had actually happened when he was molested by an adult, but he did remember he had trouble walking afterwards. No explanation of this was needed.

Sitting behind him was a young woman who watched intently and caringly.

I don't know if she was a friend, or relative, or social worker or commission staffer.

But it was clear she was there to catch him - literally if necessary - should he collapse in telling his story, which was obviously an ordeal for him.

When he finished he turned to her, checking on his performance. He appeared to say to her: "Was that OK?"

She continued to keep her gaze on him and nodded her endorsement. She didn't smile. It wasn't a time for celebration. But she had an expression that told of relief he had made it through.

After this I read a piece by an Australian commentator to the effect that Cardinal George Pell was a victim of the royal commission, and it made me angry.

Cardinal Pell had been asked to appear before the royal commission, which he did that same February in strikingly difference circumstances to the man in Ballarat.

Instead of coming to Australia, Cardinal Pell hired a function room at Rome's Quirinale Hotel for a video link to the commissioners. There wasn't a young woman monitoring his statement. But there was a clutch of priests from the Vatican bureaucracy clearing the way for him in and out of the engagement.

I don't know whether Cardinal Pell has done anything for which he should be held to account. But I do believe that when it comes to a list of victims there are a couple of thousand names ahead of his, including the Ballarat man.

The royal commission has become a repository of individual histories uncovered by public hearings and some 8000 private sessions. They have been 41,000 calls logged to the commission and 25,000 letters and emails.

The testimonies are indictments of adults in a wide range of bodies of several church denominations, and charities - the very people who had an obligation to care for children.

That betrayal is as ghastly as the acts by these adults themselves, and these histories have taken away the innocence of all Australians, just as the abuse did to the child victims.

The question of compensation has not been fully responded to by the Government but the Prime Minister today said $52.1 million would go to ensuring support and assistance for victims throughout the process of accessing redress.

The Government will also establish a taskforce, starting next January, to consider and coordinate action on the recommendations and track the progress made by all Australian governments.

Topics:  child abuse royal commission

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