Bill's Speeches

STATEMENT TO THE HOUSE: ROYAL COMMISSION INTO INSTITUTIONAL RESPONSES TO CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE - CANBERRA - THURSDAY, 8 FEBRUARY 2018

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I thank the Prime Minister for his statement.

“We were treated as slaves, beaten and abused, used for their perverted desires.

These were terrible years, no love or kindness, no safety or warmth.

Always hungry and always frightened.”

That’s a bare thirty words from the Royal Commission’s final report.

One survivor’s account of the abuse he suffered, the betrayal he endured.

It is just one story among thousands.

Open almost any page of the final report, you can find words that shake us to our core.

The child with disability, abused daily, who couldn’t get a disinterested police officer to take any notice of their plea for help.

The good Catholic boy, who after each time he was abused sexually by his priest had to go to confession and confess his sin of impurity - to his abuser.

And then this boy, this child being preyed upon by this monster, would be asked if he was sorry. And told to do three Hail Marys for his penance.

The student, who after years of being groomed and then sexually abused by her teacher, saw her parents take his side of the argument – because she was the ‘instigator’.

Every story is different, every story is individual. But in every young life broken and betrayed, there are common threads:

First, the disgusting sense of moral superiority, the presumption that the abuser had the authority – even the right – to commit these unforgivable crimes.

Because they were an adult, dealing with a child.

Because they were white and the child was black.

Because they did not have a disability and the child did.

Or because they claimed to be acting in the authority of a religion.

And second, the harsh reality that no matter where the survivor turned for help, they would not be believed.

They were children, seen and not heard.

They could not find a counsellor to listen to their story, they could not find justice in the criminal court or compensation in the civil.

These institutions failed our fellow Australians – and then our nation did.

People continue to count the cost of that failure in a hundred different ways: lives of violence and addiction, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress, poverty and incarceration.

Lives that never recovered their equilibrium.

Childhoods stolen from children.

People who never learned to trust again, who could never love again, whose faith in their fellow human beings was shattered beyond repair.

As one survivor put it:

“I felt dirty, and responsible for what happened to me as a child.

I have isolated myself and hidden my true feelings.

The loneliness I have experienced is overwhelming.”

Mr Speaker

Sometimes we say that child abuse is ‘unspeakable’ - actually, for too long that was precisely the problem - it wasn’t spoken of.

Instead, the survivors were silenced. The perpetrators were protected. The reputation of powerful institutions and individuals was put ahead of the welfare of children.

And the truth was buried – with only trauma and scar tissue to mark its place.

The Royal Commission has stripped away the denial and betrayal of decades.

Painfully at times, it has exposed the most unforgivable and unimaginable acts of evil.

It has shown, without doubt or exception, the extraordinary courage of all the survivors who stepped forward to tell their story. The brave souls who reached back into the darkness of their memories and brought their suffering to light.

Not for their own sake but because they never want another generation to ever suffer what they did, to be disbelieved the way they were, to live with the pain they had to.

I also think they did it for all of the other kids who didn't make it.

I want to pay tribute to Julia Gillard for her leadership in establishing this Royal Commission - I actually think that with every passing day, that decision enhances her legacy.

I do thank the Royal Commission and its staff, as the Prime Minister has done - remarkable, their work.

Even though she is not going to ask me to do this, I also think the House should also recognise the work of the Member for Jaga Jaga, Jenny Macklin, who has supported this endeavour with 100 per cent of her passion for social justice.

I had the privilege of standing alongside Jenny and a group of the remarkable campaigners from CLAN when the Commission’s final day of hearings were handed down and then the report.

They are extraordinary Australians – and I know many members of parliament on both sides of the House have spoken to them and know them, so they will know what I am saying - these are survivors, they have spent five years travelling to Royal Commission hearings around the country, to provide support to others as they tell their stories.

I pay tribute to each and every one of them.

Again, although she would modesty share credit with all others, I think it is appropriate that I note and salute the incomparable Leonie Sheedy: fierce, fearless , a heart as big as this continent. Australia owes her and all that she represents, a huge debt.

I have to say about the Royal Commission, the Commissioners and their team - at all times they have balanced their human compassion for those providing testimony with the legal detachment to recommend a constructive way forward. 

But as the Prime Minister has said and every member of this place would agree: the hardest task, the most important work and the greatest credit belong to the survivors themselves.

So, as the Prime Minister has done, I say to the survivors: Australia believes you - and Australia thanks you.

Your bravery and honesty has done something that no parliament, no court, no media outlet on its own could or would ever do.

You have faced us up to a hard truth about our history and you have shown us that we must do better in the future.  

I can't speak for everyone in this House, or indeed Australians but I for one was shocked at the extent. Shocked at the extent of the abuse.

And now it is up to this parliament and our nation to be better, to prove worthy of the courage of the survivors.

The report cannot be left to sit on a shelf and gather dust. The stories of raw pain and powerful resilience cannot be consigned to one uncomfortable corner of the national conversation.

The Royal Commission has given us a blueprint and we must follow it.

The report calls for the Commonwealth and every state to formally respond to every recommendation within six months, it is a deadline we should meet.

Since 2015, Federal Labor’s focus has been on the design and delivery of a National Redress Scheme.

One where the states and the institutions responsible for the abuse help fund the compensation that is owed.

Compensation in many ways is an unfair term.  Because anyone who has survived this knows that they are not in it for the compensation.

And the compensation can never give their childhood back, or their trust.

You cannot ever repair the damage done.

No dollar figure can make shattered lives whole or bring people back.

But that is no reason for delay, no reason for avoiding clear-cut obligations.

As of today, not a single dollar has come from any of the states or the institutions whose names and deeds fill the pages of this report.

I say to the institutions, and indeed, the states: the time for lawyers is over, the time for justice is here.

If we believe the survivors – and we do.

If we accept responsibility – and we must.

Then conscience demands only one course of action, we must deliver a truly national redress scheme.

One underpinned by uniformity and equity. Because trauma doesn’t stop at state borders and justice should never depend on your postcode.

The Commonwealth has a contribution to make – in dollars and in leadership.

And I would invite the Prime Minister to think about an event at this Parliament itself, to thank and recognise the survivors.

But of course, having said that about the Commonwealth's obligations, the bulk of the funds must come from state governments and all those institutions who so badly failed their duty-of-care and trust to children.

The money does matter. Compensation does help get people, at least, get back on their feet a bit. But it’s also a tangible admission that the institution was at fault and they should pay for their wrongs. I believe that every member of this parliament feels this matter most keenly.

When I was a child, my mother used to take me and my brother to the Polish Mass at Sacred Heart in Oakleigh, we lacked Polish ancestry.

But my point about that is I said to my mum: 'Why do we go to this Mass? There are four other sessions'.

It turned out that she took us to that service because she didn't like the other priest, Father O'Donnell.

He approached us to become altar boys - I said: 'What do you think, Mum?'

She said no.

How lucky was I?

It's that sense of a shark swimming imperceptibly, unseen, so close to you.

Chrissie and Anthony Foster were not so lucky at that same church - and hundreds of other families affected by this monster.

Thousands of Australians didn't, by mere luck, avoid their monsters.

It is for these people that we must deliver redress.

I would not wish to hear anyone describe the push for national redress as ‘rushed’. Survivors have been waiting decades for the justice they are owed, and some, too many, have not even lived to see it.

And so to everyone on whom redress depends I simply say this: our nation turned a blind eye to the abuse that our fellow Australians were suffering and now we know the truth, we cannot turn our backs.

No more tricky legal tactics, no more litigation to exhaustion or artful means of delay. The days of excusing the inexcusable are long gone.

This issue is not about politics but it is what politics should be about:  doing the right thing, making good wrongs, helping the vulnerable.

Fundamentally, this is a test of who we are: as a parliament, as a people, as a country which calls itself the home of the fair go.

I wish to conclude using the Commissioner’s final address on presenting the report, he said.

“The sexual abuse of any child is intolerable in a civilised society.

It is the responsibility of our entire community to acknowledge that children are being abused.

We must each resolve that we should do what we can to protect them.

The tragic impact of abuse for individuals and through them our entire society demands nothing less.”

Let that profound and clear statement guide us and challenge us to right the wrongs of the past, and do better in the future.

I thank the House.


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