Speech – National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

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The royal commission’s report has laid bare the devastating impacts of institutional child sexual abuse. Over 16,000 individuals contacted the royal commission. Over 8,000 personal stories were shared in private sessions and more than 1,000 survivors provided written accounts of their experience. I want to thank those who had enormous courage in laying themselves bare to contribute to the royal commission and to share their deeply personal stories, in what must have been a traumatic and harrowing experience. Truly, they are some of the bravest amongst us.

As a government, we have no higher duty than to protect the most vulnerable in our community. There can be none more vulnerable than our children. As a mother, I think of my own two children: my 3½-year-old and my 18-month-old. My job is to love and to cherish them, to teach them and to guide them and to keep them safe. And I can only imagine the heartbreak of so many parents and families learning of the terrible suffering of their children, who experienced such horror at the hands of such vile perpetrators. Whilst yesterday we delivered in this place a national apology, it is very long overdue. What must follow is strong deeds to ensure justice for all of those who are impacted.

I also want to make special mention today of a number of very strong people who have also created the opportunity for this very important national apology. I want to make special mention today of two Victorian MPs, Georgie Crozier and Andrea Coote, for their work on the report that paved the way for this very important royal commission. This original report came about because at that time Victoria—particularly around Ballarat, as we’ve just heard from the member—was the epicentre for reports of institutional abuse. In early 2011, former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu announced that the parliament of Victoria’s Family and Community Development Committee would hold an inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations. This inquiry, which was chaired by Georgie Crozier and which reported in November 2013, became known as the betrayal of trust inquiry.

Andrea Coote recalls that this was the very first time that many of these victims had told their stories before officials. They brought in photographs of themselves as they once were—innocent young boys and girls. She said: ‘We were the first group of officials these people had ever spoken to who believed their stories. For us, it was a deeply moving experience, but we saw many of them walk in on their heels and walk out on their toes. Such was the importance of being believed.’ In November 2012, while this inquiry was still underway, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard decided to call the royal commission. Like many others over the past couple of days, I want to join with them in commending Ms Gillard for taking such an important and far-reaching decision. The 17-volume final report of the royal commission contains the all-too-many case studies—frankly, to call them ‘case studies’ does not, I think, do them justice—about the profound and wide-ranging impacts on survivors both during their childhood and throughout their subsequent adult lives. The trauma that they experienced as children continues, for so many, to have such a devastating impact today.

In my own area of ministerial responsibility now, in jobs, we work in the hope that every young person gets the chance to fulfil their potential and is able to do the very best that they can in the field of endeavour that they wish to follow. But how much harder is it for those who have suffered severe trauma, who have had their future in so many ways stolen from them? Not only do they suffer the pain of abuse; but, for many, the trauma affects them for the rest of their lives.

The commission’s report told the story of one man, John, who experienced physical and sexual abuse during placements at three separate institutions from the 6th grade and who eventually ran away to live on the streets when he was just 14. As a result of the abuse that he suffered as a small boy, John told the royal commission that, even to this day, he finds it difficult to take a shower. I have never met John, but the story he heroically told exemplifies and brings home the problems that so many of these people experience throughout their lives. As a result of the sexual abuse that he experienced, John has suffered from ongoing anxiety and depression. Despite his best efforts to educate himself, he could not complete courses and gain certificates, which, in turn, has affected his ability to remain in steady employment.

No-one should see their opportunity to build a life for themselves and their family impacted by the unthinkable, evil actions of others. No-one should see their future robbed or thwarted by the twisted, horrible actions of predators. Sadly, there are all too many of these people left facing this situation today. This week in the federal parliament we have tried to give an acknowledgement of that. What we have also tried to acknowledge is the betrayal and hurt that so many experienced, whether it be in their school, their church, their Scout group or their sporting or other voluntary organisation, and the fact that when they spoke up they weren’t believed. But what I think is most devastating is those institutions that covered up this terrible and predatory behaviour, priests who moved some of these predators from parish to parish, which is, in my view, completely and utterly unforgiveable. We all acknowledge that we need to do better in protecting our young people. On behalf of the parliament, I extend my sincere sympathies to all of those who have been deeply impacted.

I want to thank those who contributed to the royal commission and acknowledge those who were not able to contribute because they have passed or because they simply felt they could not relive that pain. I want to thank those who worked on the royal commission—the royal commissioners and the staff who assisted so many in being able to give voice to their personal stories. As I said at the beginning, we have a duty to protect the most vulnerable in our community. We have a duty to protect our children, and with this national apology we must make clear that we can never, ever fail them again.