How did the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse begin?
On 11 January 2013, Quentin Bryce, who was then the Governor General of Australia, the Queen’s representative in Australia, appointed six Commissioners to inquire into institutional responses to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse. The Chair of the Commission is the Honourable Justice Peter David McClellan AM. This commission became known as the “Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission”.
Why did the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission begin?
The document appointing the Commissioners is referred to as “Letters Patent”. The Letters Patent is a moving and powerful document that sets out the reasons for the inquiry. These reasons include:
- Australia has obligations to protect children from sexual abuse and other forms of abuse, including measures for the prevention, identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of incidents of child abuse;
- All forms of child sexual abuse are a gross violation of a child’s right to this protection;
- It is important that best practice is identified so that it may be followed in the future both to protect against the occurrence of child sexual abuse and to respond appropriately when any allegations and incidents of sexual abuse occur; and
- It is important that those sexually abused as a child in an Australian institution can share their experiences to assist them with healing and to inform the development of strategies that the inquiry will seek to identify.
What powers does a Royal Commission have?
A Royal Commission has broad ranging powers under the Royal Commission Act 1902 including:
- To summon witnesses to give evidence under oath or affirmation;
- To require the production of documents;
- To take evidence from a person in another country where appropriate arrangements have been made between Australia and that other country; and
- To apply for search warrants.
Does the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission have special powers?
The Royal Commission Act 1902 was specifically amended in 2013 to give the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission the power to hold private sessions in addition to the usual powers of a Royal Commission. Only people authorised by the Commissioner holding the private session may be present during the private session. Private hearings are not open to the public or the media. Information about a person obtained at a private session may only be included in a report or recommendation of the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission if the information is de-identified.
What does the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission investigate?
The Letters Patent directs the Royal Commission to investigate:
- What institutions and governments should do to protect children against child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts in the future;
- What governments and institutions should do to achieve best practice in encouraging the reporting of, and responding to, information and reports about allegations, incidents and risks of child sexual abuse;
- What should be done to eliminate or reduce current impediments to responding appropriately to child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts; and
- What institutions and governments should do to address, or alleviate the impact of, past and future child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts.
In particular, the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission must have regard to:
- The experience of people directly or indirectly affected by child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts;
- The need to focus their inquiry and recommendations on systemic issues;
- The adequacy and appropriateness of responses by institutions to allegations, incidents and risks of child sexual abuse; and
- Changes to laws, policies, practices and systems that have improved over time the ability of institutions and governments to better protect against and respond to child sexual abuse and associated matters in institutional contexts.
What institutions is the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission investigating?
The Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission investigates institutional responses to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts.
An institution is any public or private body, agency, association, club, institution, organisation or other entity or group of entities of any kind. This includes children’s homes, religious organisations, missions and reserves, government agencies, schools, sports clubs, juvenile justice facilities and out of home care.
Child sexual abuse happens in an institutional context if, for example, it happens on premises of an institution, where activities of an institution take place, or in connection with the activities of an institution.
What happens when the Royal Commission discovers criminal activity?
The Royal Commission is not a court of law and cannot make decisions about criminal matters. However, where a Royal Commission’s inquiry reveals information that relates to illegal activity, the Commission may report that information to the police, or other law enforcement and administration bodies such as the Attorney General and/or the Director of Public Prosecutions.
When will the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission deliver its findings?
After receiving submissions, the Commissioners consider all submissions and evidence. They then make findings and recommendations, which are published as case study reports. Case study reports are tabled in the Australian Parliament and published on the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission website.
The Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission must submit a final report of the results of its enquiry and its recommendations to the Governor General by 15 December 2017. The recommendations will address how to improve laws, policies and practices in Australia to provide a safer future for children.
Nicola Arvidson is a solicitor admitted to the practice of law in NSW. Zimmerman Services is the diocese’s specialist child protection service and anyone who is affected by historic child abuse or requires support can contact Zimmerman Services’ Healing and Support Team on (02) 4979 1390.