1. Why we are here

1.1 The need for an inquiry

When a child is sexually abused while in the care of an institution, the impact can be devastating and last for a lifetime. It can leave a traumatic legacy for a victim’s family and for future generations.

Child sexual abuse affects the entire community and diminishes the trust we place in our institutions. That trust is further eroded when an institution fails to appropriately respond to the victim’s needs.

Although there have previously been some inquiries with limited terms of reference, in recent years it became clear to the Australian community that there needed to be a broad-ranging national response. On 11 January 2013, Her Excellency Quentin Bryce, (then) Governor-General, appointed the Royal Commission to inquire into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

1.2 Our task

The Letters Patent provide comprehensive terms of reference to the Royal Commission. They require us, through private sessions and public hearings, to bear witness to the abuse and trauma inflicted on children who suffered sexual abuse in an institutional context. We must also identify and focus our inquiry and recommendations on systemic issues.

Drawing upon the experience of individuals and the investigation of systemic issues, we are required to make recommendations that will provide a just response for people who have been sexually abused and ensure institutions achieve best practice in protecting children in the future.

Our inquiry does not extend to abuse in a family context. We do not have any power to provide compensation or initiate prosecutions. However, we do refer individual cases to police with a view to their further investigation and prosecution.

At the end of our inquiry, our final report must identify best practices and recommend the laws, policies, practices and systems that will effectively prevent or, where it occurs, respond to the sexual abuse of children in institutions.

We are approaching our task in three ways:

Private sessions

Enabling survivors to speak directly with a Commissioner about their experiences in a private and supportive setting.

Public hearings

A formal process during which the Royal Commission receives evidence following investigation, research and preparation.

Research and policy

An extensive research program that includes roundtables and issues papers. It focuses on four broad areas: prevention, identification, response and justice for victims.

This interim report discusses the work we have already completed and what we have learned so far. We do not yet have enough information to make recommendations. The report outlines what we must do to fulfil our terms of reference and the time and resources we will need to complete the task. Bearing witness to past wrongs, seeking just responses for those affected now and in the future, and creating a safer place for our children guide the work of the Royal Commission.

1.3 Our operations

The members of the Royal Commission are:

Chair

The Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM

Commissioner

Mr Bob Atkinson AO APM

Commissioner

The Hon. Justice Jennifer Coate

Commissioner

Mr Robert Fitzgerald AM

Commissioner

Professor Helen Milroy

Commissioner

Mr Andrew Murray

By 30 April 2014, the Commissioners were supported by 250 full-time-equivalent staff and contractors. Our people come from a variety of professional backgrounds, including public servants, lawyers, counsellors and the police. We work from headquarters in Sydney, but we also have office capacity in Perth and Melbourne.

The total budget for the Royal Commission is $281.13 million for the financial years 2012–13 to 2015–16. Given the size of the task set out in the Letters Patent we faced challenges in developing our operational capacity.

2. What we have done

2.1 private sessions and written accounts

Our first priority has been to hear from people who have experienced sexual abuse as a child.

Through private sessions and written accounts, we are learning of the impact of abuse upon individuals and how the response of an institution affects survivors over their lifetimes. By 31 May 2014 we had held 1,677 private sessions and received 1,632 written accounts.

Private sessions are unique to this Royal Commission and allow survivors and others affected by abuse to speak confidentially with one of our Commissioners.

We recognise it is often very difficult for people to talk about abuse they have suffered. To identify the appropriate procedure for private sessions, we spoke at length to advocacy and support groups, mental health professionals and providers of sexual assault support services. We have trained professionals on our staff to help people through every stage of the process. Where appropriate, people who come to a private session are advised where they may seek ongoing counselling and care.

Several themes have emerged from the personal stories people have shared. For example:

  • sexual abuse often occurs with physical and psychological abuse
  • abuse can have lifelong impacts on health
  • some children are particularly vulnerable
  • repeated abuse and multiple perpetrators are common
  • there are major barriers to disclosure and reporting
  • institutions and adults have systematically failed to protect children.

For many, the opportunity to tell their story can be an important part of the recovery process. They provide information that helps us to identify systemic issues and institutions we should consider in public hearings, research and consultation processes. They also enable allegations that should be further investigated to be referred to the police. By 31 May 2014 over 160 allegations had been referred to police. Some participants in the Royal Commission processes have indicated that they will make an independent report to the police.

2.2 Public hearings

Public hearings are used to examine abuse within a particular institution or a number of institutions. Considering some cases in detail and in public allows us to examine abuse that has occurred and the failures of individuals and the institution where it occurred. Looking at some cases in detail will enable us to develop authoritative findings and effective recommendations for our reports, including our final report. Importantly, they also raise community awareness and understanding of child sexual abuse and the institutions in which it has occurred.

Like private sessions, public hearings provide an opportunity for survivors to tell their stories. We have been told of allegations of child abuse in more than 1,000 institutions. Because our resources are necessarily finite, we must carefully select the cases we decide to examine in a public hearing.

We have developed criteria by which we decide which allegations and institutions should be the subject of a public hearing. We must conduct sufficient public hearings to ensure that a range of institution types in different geographical locations throughout Australia are examined. We must also ensure that all important systemic issues are effectively considered in a public hearing.

By 30 June 2014, we had held 13 public hearings in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Sydney. Each public hearing results in a report to government that makes findings about that particular case and identifies and discusses relevant systemic issues. We submitted the first two case study reports to the Governor-General and state governors in the first half of 2014.

Public hearings are already bringing positive and significant change. Various institutions are reviewing their management practices. Some are reviewing their previous responses to victims. Government and many institutions have initiated processes to enable their effective participation in our consideration of policy outcomes.

2.3 Research and policy

To ensure we provide authoritative recommendations of contemporary relevance to government, institutions and regulators, we have developed, in consultation with professionals in relevant fields, a detailed research program. It focuses on the four areas of:

  • prevention
  • identification
  • response
  • justice for victims.

The research program will ensure we:

  • obtain relevant background information
  • fill key evidence gaps
  • explore what is known and what works
  • develop recommendations that are soundly based, capable of implementation and respond to contemporary issues.

We have engaged national and international experts from many disciplines to help us. These include criminologists, historians, lawyers, psychologists and social workers. A Professorial Fellow provides strategic advice and leadership, and several advisory groups guide us in specific areas or projects.

By the end of June 2014, we had completed 21 research projects, and there were more than 30 additional projects either underway or in the scoping phase.

The community has an opportunity to contribute to our consideration of systemic issues. We have released seven issues papers on topics including Working with Children Checks, child safe organisations, out-of-home care and civil litigation. More issues papers will be released inviting responses from members of the community.

We have already received submissions on five of these papers. Our first roundtable in April 2014 enabled government and non-government representatives, regulators, policy experts, academics and advocacy groups to discuss key policy issues on out-of-home care.

2.4 Community

We are aware of the need to involve the general community in our work.

We are doing this in a number of ways. We have conducted many public forums and have implemented a national public awareness campaign. We are also working with vulnerable groups, culturally diverse groups and those with special needs in the community so their members can share their experiences. We have sought to engage with many groups representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in many different parts of Australia. We have also worked with many organisations involved with the care of and advocacy for people with disability.

2.5 Information

Much of our work involves collecting personal information. We are receiving thousands of phone calls, letters and emails. Private sessions will give thousands of people the opportunity to tell their story.

Our first priority is to ensure that people can communicate with us safely and securely. We have detailed policies and information technology designed to protect all the information we hold. Other technology has been developed including purpose-built electronic hearing rooms for our public hearings together with a capacity to stream the hearing through our website.

Different laws affect sharing information with third parties, but where necessary we will share information relevant to law enforcement and children presently at risk.

3. What we are learning about child sexual abuse

3.1 Nature and prevalence

There has never been a nationwide study of child sexual abuse in Australian institutions. Significant delays in reporting, high levels of under-reporting and a lack of consistent data are some of the significant challenges researchers face.

However, we have analysed the information obtained in private sessions, which may provide some useful indicators. It reveals:

  • ninety per cent of perpetrators were male
  • on average, female victims were nine years old and male victims 10 years old when the abuse started
  • on average it took victims 22 years to disclose the abuse, men longer than women.

We do not yet know how prevalent abuse has been or continues to be within institutions. In an attempt to understand the prevalence of abuse our research program is compiling data from the police, child protection agencies, education departments and other bodies. Although many instances of abuse reported to us occurred some years ago, the information we have gathered and the public hearings we have conducted confirm that abuse remains a contemporary issue.

We understand that although many people have come forward to the Royal Commission, it is likely that they represent only a minority of those abused. Many others are yet to disclose their abuse or, for various reasons, feel unable to come forward at this time.

3.2 Institutions

To understand why abuse occurs in an institutional context we need to know more about the structure and management of institutions where it has occurred.

To assist our understanding of these issues we have commenced by identifying the broad range of institutions that have contact with children. These include government agencies, private companies, churches, faith-based and community organisations delivering out-of-home care, childcare, education, sporting, recreational and cultural activities for children.

We have researched the history of children in care to understand how institutions operated when the child safe practices or child protection laws of today did not exist. This will enable us to identify whether changes that have occurred have been effective in minimising abuse. It may also help us to understand why perpetrators have abused children in institutional care.

The research is also helping us develop recommendations for best practice in the future structure and management of institutions.

3.3 Legal framework

There is an existing legal framework for the protection of children in Australia. The states and territories are responsible for relevant laws in the three areas of:

  • pre-employment screening
  • child protection, including regulations controlling various institutions
  • criminal justice.

The child protection system involves all levels of government and many organisations in the private and community sectors. The National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 outlines the roles all organisations must play to reduce child abuse in Australia. It seeks to improve coordination and reduce duplication across multiple systems.

3.4 Victims

All children in an institution, who have an association with an institution or in out-of-home care may be at risk of sexual abuse. We are learning which children are most vulnerable, and what factors increase that vulnerability.

Some children are more vulnerable because of their age, ethnicity, gender, disability or immigration status. Others are vulnerable because of where they are living or being cared for. The risks of abuse can increase with geographical isolation, where there are no trusted adults to approach, or where there is inadequate training and staff supervision.

Although there is no single set of symptoms that victims and survivors experience, we have discovered some common themes. For example:

  • there are both short-term and long-term effects, and many may be lifelong
  • children and adolescents face emotional, physical and social impacts
  • these impacts often extend into adulthood, affect life choices and mental health, and may lead to victims committing suicide
  • the nature and severity of the impacts vary between survivors
  • the impacts extend beyond the immediate victim, affecting parents, colleagues, friends, families and the community.

3.5 Perpetrators

What creates a perpetrator is not yet fully understood. The Royal Commission is exploring this issue further. Existing theories focus on a combination of factors that lead to offending. There is little research specific to perpetrators within institutions.

It is apparent that perpetrators are more likely to offend when an institution lacks the appropriate culture and is not managed with the protection of children as a high priority. They will manipulate people, processes and situations to create opportunities for abuse. Everyone in a responsible role in an institution must be able to recognise when perpetrators are manipulating or ‘grooming children’. This requires education and training, and the development of an appropriate institutional culture.

Grooming behaviours can be difficult to recognise or distinguish from seemingly innocent actions. However, observable signs include increasingly more intimate and intrusive behaviours, creating ‘special’ relationships with particular children, or seeking to spend time with children alone or outside the work role.

Parents and those caring for children need to understand the characteristics of grooming behaviours.

4. What we are learning about prevention

4.1 Recruitment and pre-employment screening

Pre-employment screening is an important first step in preventing abuse. It prevents known child abusers from working with children. Of course, it only identifies people who already have some record of abuse.

Screening is not consistent across Australia; two types of checks currently exist. Police checks provide a baseline for pre-employment screening. Working with Children Checks are more comprehensive, but not all states and territories use them. Laws also vary in how they govern screening for out-of-home care placements and out-of-school-hours care staff and volunteers.

The Council of Australian Governments has attempted to develop consistency through a national approach with common screening standards. However there is disagreement between governments as to whether a national system is appropriate or can be developed.

The Royal Commission is carefully considering whether a national screening agency would offer any advantages. We raised this issue in our first two public hearings and have commissioned research on pre-employment screening and sex offender registration schemes. We will develop our response to the issue through a comprehensive consultation program.

4.2 Child safe practices

Developing child safe practices in institutions requires competent leadership and governance, and the right culture. Safe institutions have physical environments that enable continual supervision of staff and children.

Many view the national standards for building child safe organisations as current best practice. However, we have also received submissions that support the development of accreditation schemes, and strengthening laws to make institutions more child safe. Another suggestion is a national body overseeing child safety and sexual abuse.

Similarly, the 2011 national standards for out-of-home care offer uniform guidance for service providers. However, we have received submissions that support the establishment of an independent body to oversee and regulate the industry.

All of these issues will be considered, through research and consultation, and in recommendations discussed in further reports.

4.3 Reducing the vulnerability of children

Effective protection of children from sexual abuse may involve educating them in how to recognise and avoid situations that may put them at risk. This could include programs that teach children how to recognise and report sexual abuse.

Some evidence suggests that when institutions engage with children by discussing sexual abuse, children may feel safer in disclosing it. However how this should be done in different institutions and with children of different ages requires detailed consideration. To assist our understanding of these issues we are commissioning research that will help us to understand how children look at these issues and what they believe could be done to ensure their safety in an institutional context. It is important to know what children can tell us about how to best protect them.

Our research will inform comprehensive recommendations intended to reduce the vulnerability of children.

5. What we are learning about response

5.1 Identification, disclosure and reporting

Despite legal obligations to report, it is believed that child sexual abuse is significantly under-reported in Australia. Reasons for this include:

  • failure to identify children who have been abused
  • delayed disclosure by victims
  • reluctance of institutions to respond to allegations and report them to appropriate authorities.

We are seeking to identify changes that should be made to facilitate disclosure by children and ensure institutions report allegations.

5.2 Institutional responses to reports

Many institutions take their responsibility to appropriately respond to reports of child sexual abuse seriously. Yet many others have failed to respond to reports, or if they have responded, have done so ineffectively. We are examining:

  • the key elements of an effective institutional response
  • the obstacles to an effective response
  • how these obstacles can be eliminated or reduced.

5.3 Justice for victims

The Letters Patent require us to consider justice for victims.

There are three avenues that may provide justice for victims, namely:

  • the criminal justice system
  • civil litigation
  • redress schemes.

An effective criminal justice system is important in providing justice for many victims. We are reviewing the manner in which allegations are investigated and offenders are tried and sentenced. This requires considering the approach in each of the Australian states and territories. It is a complex but essential review.

We are seeking to understand whether civil litigation is effective in providing justice for victims. Important issues – including limitation periods, the proper defendant, vicarious liability and the level of damages – will be considered.

We are also reviewing redress schemes. A number of institutions have advocated a national scheme; How it would work, and who would fund and administer it are complex issues. The level of any financial compensation must also be considered.

Redress schemes and civil litigation are being considered as a matter of priority and will be the subject of a separate report in mid-2015. Our review of and recommendations about the criminal justice system will also be contained in a later report.

6. What we need to do next

6.1 The task set by the terms of reference

When the Royal Commission began, no one knew how long may be required to carry out the tasks in the Letters Patent. We did not know how many people might come forward to tell their personal story. No one was aware of the number of institutions about which there may be allegations of abuse. Furthermore, the need for research into measures that make institutions safe for children was unknown. The work required to adequately address the issue of justice for victims had not been assessed. The number and complexity of essential public hearings had not been identified.

The Royal Commission is presently required to complete its work by the end of 2015. Having regard to the private sessions, public hearings, research and consultation that must be undertaken to complete the tasks required by the Letters Patent, the Commissioners are satisfied that more time is essential. The Royal Commission has asked the Government to extend the final reporting date to 15 December 2017 and fund the Royal Commission so that it has the resources necessary to complete its work by that time.

6.2 Private sessions, public hearings and research

By the end of 2015 the Royal Commission will have conducted up to 4,000 private sessions. If the Royal Commission is not extended we will not be able to hold a private session for any person who contacts us after September this year. This will deny many survivors of the opportunity to share their experiences with us, in particular those from vulnerable or hard-to-reach groups.

By the end of 2015 we will be able to complete no more than 40 public hearings. We need another two years to complete the additional 30 hearings we have identified as essential to fulfil the Terms of Reference. One of the most important outcomes of the Royal Commission is to bring about cultural change within institutions, to prevent and better respond to the sexual abuse of children in their care. To do this the Royal Commission is in a unique position to require key institutions to report publicly on what they have done to achieve those goals since the commencement of the Royal Commission. If an extension of time is provided, key institutions will be requested to report on such matters by way of public hearings prior to the conclusion of the Royal Commission.

By the end of 2015 we will have completed up to 52 research projects. We need another two years to complete the process of consulting with experts, stakeholders and the community, which is essential to ensure our recommendations are practical and respond to contemporary issues in the protection of children.

6.3 Future resources

The estimated cost of a two-year extension is $104 million.

Although the Commissioners believe that the requested extension is essential, we do not believe that any further extension beyond December 2017 would be appropriate.

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