It was a day of reckoning for many victims of child sexual abuse, with a book of their accounts of suffering handed to the National Library of Australia (NLA) on the final day of the royal commission.
After 57 public hearings spanning five years, 1,300 witness accounts and more than 8,000 harrowing personal stories from survivors, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was finally wrapped up by the chair, the Honourable Justice Peter McClellan.
“Although the primary responsibility for the sexual abuse of a child lies with the abuser and the institution 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,” he said.
Justice McClellan said 4,000 individual institutions from across the country had been reported to the commission as places where abuse occurred.
More than 2,500 allegations have been reported by the royal commission to police and so far 230 prosecutions have begun.
The day for the victims
Justice McClellan thanked survivors and advocates for sharing their stories.
“For victims and survivors, telling their stories has required great courage and determination,” he said.
He said survivors’ stories had had a profound impact on the commissioners and staff.
Justice McClellan gave special mention to senior counsel assisting the royal commission, Gail Furness SC, who would have handed the Messages to Australia book to the NLA representative had it not been “too heavy to lift”.
There are anonymous accounts of more than 1,000 Australians who experienced the horrors of sexual abuse as children, with Ms Furness reading excerpts:
“For us that once had no voice, now we can be heard. And for us whose lives were destroyed, now we can begin to heal,” one account read.
Justice McClellan said: “Child sexual abuse is a hideous, shocking and vile crime and it is clear from what is already in the public domain that too many children were the subject of child sexual abuse in institutions.”
‘Police often refused to believe children’
Police, child protection agencies and the criminal justice system all failed to listen to and protect young people, as well as the churches, orphanages and other groups that had come under the commission’s gaze.
“Police often refused to believe children. They refused to investigate their complaints of abuse,” Justice McClellan said.
“Investigation processes were inadequate, and criminal procedures were inappropriate.
“Some leaders felt their primary responsibility was to protect the institution’s reputation and the accused person. Many did not recognise the impact this had on children.”
Justice McClellan praised the bravery of those who shared their stories.
“For survivors, telling their stories has required great courage and great determination — most are stories of personal trauma and many are of personal tragedy,” he said.
“It is impossible not to share the anger many survivors have felt when they tell us of their betrayal by people they believe they were entitled to trust.
“For many survivors, talking about past events required them to revisit traumatic events that profoundly harmed them.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was mobbed by survivors who demanded a comprehensive National Redress Scheme and greater oversight of religious institutions and charities.
“This has been a national tragedy as the royal commission has said and we will consider the recommendations with care,” Mr Turnbull said after the hearing was over.
“Everyone can rest assured that the love we owe to our children and the justice we owe to children who have been wronged will be the guiding principle.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said his “default position” is Labor should support the recommendations.
“We should show faith in royal commissioners and the thousands of people who gave evidence,” he said.
The victims who finally have a voice
Outside the final hearing, so many victims finally felt the freedom to speak about the abuse they had experienced as children.
Shelly Braieoux told the commission about years of abuse she experienced at the hands of her father and the practices used within Jehovah’s Witnesses to cover-up crimes.
“Never in my wildest dreams have I ever thought I would see this happen and I am so very appreciative to the commission to see those elders be interrogated and questioned about the way they’ve treated child sexual abuse victims in their religion,” she said.
Bob O’Toole told the commission about the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of a Marist Brother at Hamilton in 1955 as an 11-year-old .
“There are so many people like me and some that aren’t with us anymore who need to have their stories told,” he said.
“Things have got to change particularly in the hierarchy of institutions and religions.
“[I’m feeling] a great sense of satisfaction I suppose a little sad that’s the end of it but all good things come to a close.”
Married couple Roy and Ronda Janetzki told private hearings about the abuse they suffered as children while in care at various institutions in Victoria.
“The royal commission has allowed us to have a voice, they’ve believed us and they treated us with so much dignity and respect that we never had from the churches, the charities, the police and anyone else.”
Messages to Australia will be held at the National Library of Australia with copies at libraries around the country.
The final royal commission report will be handed to Governor-General Peter Cosgrove tomorrow.