Justice for survivors of child sexual abuse now hangs on the courage of politicians to resist religious influence and self-interest when acting on the royal commission’s recommendations, according to a ground-breaking former Victorian MP.
Five years of the royal commission:
- 57 public hearings
- 444 sitting days
- More than 1,300 witnesses
- 8,000 private sessions of personal accounts from survivors
“It’s over to you. You are the ones directly responsible,” Ann Barker said in a message to parliamentarians across the nation.
“And if you don’t fulfil your responsibility, then I think the community of Australia — not just the victims and survivors that have gone through this whole process, but the broader community — will say to politicians, ‘No. You have a responsibility, fulfil it, and do it now’.”
After five years of public inquiries, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will hold its last sitting on Thursday before handing its final report to the Governor-General the following day.
Ms Barker was one of first people to call for a national inquiry into the abuse of children in 2012, after travelling to Ireland to learn about its state inquiries.
She returned to Australia convinced the nation needed to wrest control of providing justice and child protection from the institutions responsible for the abuse.
After almost 8,000 private hearings, the royal commission calculated the most negligent institution was the Catholic Church (37 per cent of reported abuse cases), followed by state, territory and commonwealth governments (32 per cent) and the Anglican Church (9 per cent).
Speaking to the ABC’s Undeniable documentary, which charts the journeys of key figures in the royal commission, Ms Barker praised the work of Justice Peter McLellan and the other commissioners.
“It has already changed the nation — as it did change the nation of Ireland, it’s changed the nation of Australia,” she said.
“They now talk about it [child sexual abuse]. They now talk about it in clubs and communities, where nobody talked about that before, but now they do.”
Barriers to change should be ‘demolished’
Ms Barker warned against religious influence in considering potential law changes arising from Australia’s largest inquiry into child abuse.
“We just have to keep saying that this is not about faith,” she said. “This is about law, crime and the way in which we protect children into the future.”
Federal senator Derryn Hinch said it was inevitable major churches would try to minimise accountability.
The proposed national redress scheme — urged by the royal commission — has already had its payout cap reduced to $150,000 from a suggested $200,000.
“Which coincidently was exactly the same maximum that the Catholic Church had decided on, and I don’t believe in coincidences,” Senator Hinch said.
But Senator Hinch, who is chairing a cross-party committee scrutinising the redress scheme, said religious influence would be ineffective from now.
“I think because of the royal commission that those strong church forces are looking pretty tainted and losing influence, because out there in the real world we know what has happened,” he said.
“Down the track you may say I’m being naive here, but I think it is encouraging.”
His view is backed by former Victorian Liberal premier Ted Baillieu, who set up the influential Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations.
“I think the recommendations, the findings and the recommendations, of the royal commission will be so explicit, so clear and so damning that no-one will be able to resist their implementation,” he said.
“I would be very surprised if those recommendations were anything but unassailable. This has to be followed through by all governments, all institutions. Should anybody stand in the way of that, I think that’d be demolished.”