As the Royal Commission into sexual abuse draws to a close, there are some first glimpses of some its key objectives that will be instrumental in establishing its worth, framing the path toward healing for Ballarat and even shaping the future of the nation.
Importantly Justice Peter McClellan’s address to the children’s welfare conference has highlighted the broader cultural issues which have underlined and exacerbated many of the horror stories which have emerged at the Commission: “Although the primary responsibility for the sexual abuse of an individual lies with the abuser and the institution... we cannot avoid the conclusion that the problems faced by many people who have been abused are the responsibility of our entire society. Society’s values and mechanisms which were available to regulate and control aberrant behaviour failed.”
McClellan has hinted we are all as a society to blame for this shameful period of neglect and indifference because of the cultural influences that shaped the high-risk environment. The victims were paid too little heed. The voices of children went unheard, while the authority of institutions went unquestioned. The ghastly silence which encouraged perpetrators was exacerbated by unfounded respect in the institutions that hid them and a cursory dismissal of the young people who were calling for help. By accepting some degree of the culpability for the broader forces which shaped this failure, there is the chance for greater vigilance and compassion in the future.
“The power of the institution must never again be allowed to silence a child or diminish the preparedness or capacity of adults to act to protect children.”
And this perhaps gives us the commission’s clearest point yet. Rather than an outright indictment of any single institution, and the Catholic Church in Ballarat has certainly garnered its share of outrage and blame during the hearings, he has not only looked at the broader sweep of institutions but critically framed it in terms of recommendations for future protection of children.
It is vital he says because the danger is ongoing. If the glaring failure of the church has led to reform in its schools and institutions then the best hope is sexual abuse by catholic clergy is a crime of the past. But recent reports of children in state care, of abuse in institutions for the disabled show a harrowing and ongoing problem. This is now and it is our problem.
It is a harsh lesson for us all but it is also the best hope for a reformed future.
Read the full speech to the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies Conference here