Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald AM reflected on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) as part of the first event in the Thought Leadership Series held by Save the Children. Jane French, the Executive Director of Child Wise, guided the conversation with insightful questions around the findings of the Royal Commission.
The Royal Commission was a mammoth undertaking and incredibly significant for Australian history. It was initially expected that between 500 and 5000 people would come forward and speak of their experiences of abuse in organisations, many of them disclosing for the first time. Over 17,000 people came forward and the Royal Commission was extended to last 5 years, making it the longest and biggest Royal Commission in Australia to date. The average age of abuse was found to be 10.5 years of age with many survivors experiencing repeated instances of abuse over a period of time.
The Royal Commission investigated the way in which organisations responded to reports of abuse of those that came forward. Commissioner Fitzgerald emphasized that there were institutional factors that led to the abuse:
"Some people would say there’s only a few rotten apples – that’s not true. In the abuse that we saw there were systemic issues that gave rise to the abuse and allowed that abuse to be sustained."
He found that organisations didn’t have principles and procedures in order to handle disclosures of abuse from children and young people in their care.
Child abuse survivors want to know that the organisations have learnt from that and can demonstrate that organisations are reviewing and improving their policies and culture, to ensure incidences of child abuse are prevented in the future.
Commissioner Fitzgerald also pointed out that many organisations preference the reputation of the institution above the interests of the child.
"if you work with children you have to always act in their best interest. And you always preference the child and the child’s safety and wellbeing. Now it sounds easy to do, but over and over again we saw organisations that deal with children who did not do that, and even today you can see practice where institutions talk the talk, but when it comes to the crunch they are still preferencing other things over the interest of their vulnerable clients."
A key message from the Royal Commission is "if only we had listened to children".
The Royal Commission recommended the implementation of 10 Child Safe Standards for organisations going forward. However, many organisations struggle with meeting Standard 2: Children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously.
Children are critical for organisations to understand what they perceive to be a safe environment and who they trust in communicating key messages to them.
Commissioner Fitzgerald says: "it’s completely different to what you think."
As part of the research that was commissioned by the Royal Commission they asked children what they would look for in an organisation in order to disclose abuse. The children identified bullying. If the organisation isn’t dealing with bullying, then they wouldn’t disclose sexual abuse, which has been a tremendous insight.
"We know that bullying and domestic violence and abuse of children are all linked. Why wouldn’t you want to speak to kids and develop a language that they understand? How do you create a complaint handling process if it’s not child friendly? One of the Child Safe Standards is about creating an environment in which they can come forward and speak up if they feel unsafe."
"It’s critical that we actually do listen to children as part of this process and many people are nowhere near understanding how to do that. We haven’t quite won that battle just yet."
"Are we listening to them any better today?"
You can listen to the audio recording of the event here.
Please note some of the content may be triggering. If you have experienced abuse in an institutional setting and/or need support and counselling after giving evidence to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, or are considering engaging with the National Redress Scheme, please contact the Child Wise Helpline on 1800 99 10 99.