In a year of so much ugly politics, it is time to remember some of the good . . . and to embrace the challenges ahead. As published in the Newcastle Herald.


What a difference a year makes. On 16 September 2012 my office co-hosted a public forum with the Newcastle Herald where we asked the question: Is there a need for a Royal Commission into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and other organisations? This coming Monday, exactly a year after we held that forum, the first public hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will be held. In year which held so much ugly politics, it is time to remember some of the good.

At that Newcastle meeting we had a full house, as survivors and victims of abuse and their families came to hear from journalist and author Peter Fitzsimmons, members of the Pirona family and journalist Joanne McCarthy amongst others. That day is also remembered for the words of Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox who stood up and publicly blew the whistle on how the police had been struggling to properly investigate the Catholic Church.

There was an overwhelming feeling in the room that day that something had to change. Too many people had kept silent for too long. Justice had been denied for decades. The perpetrators of abuse, and the institutions that shielded them, were not being held to account.

While local independent MP Greg Piper came and showed his support, none of the Hunter’s government MPs or Bishop Wright of the Maitland Newcastle diocese accepted the invitation to come. There was even then a clear reluctance from many to acknowledge the failings of powerful institutions like the Catholic Church and the obvious needs of survivors and victims of abuse.

When I spoke to victims, survivors and their advocates it became abundantly clear to me that one-off police prosecutions or even a hundred internal church investigations were not going to achieve justice for victims. Worse still, they were not going to force recalcitrant institutions to change their focus from protecting their reputation and assets towards protecting children and helping victims.

It was generally understood that a truly independent inquiry would be the only way to uncover the truth of what happened to so many young people within churches, in orphanages, children’s homes and other organisations. So at the end of the September 2012 meeting, when we asked the hundreds of attendees did we need a Royal Commission, they responded with a unanimous “yes!”

On 12 November 2012 when Julia Gillard stepped up and announced the establishment of a Royal Commission into abuse, for a memorable moment we rose above the petty politics of the day to achieve a genuinely historic outcome. In twenty years when people look back at Julia Gillard’s time as Prime Minister this will be remembered as one of her principal achievements. But it was a collective achievement for which so much credit is due to those brave survivors of abuse, courageous family members and the passionate advocates that worked day in day out to achieve just this.

I still remember the day the Royal Commission was announced; the overjoyed phone calls, the relief and tears and emotion from the people I spoke to. As I said in Parliament the following day:

“People have been waiting decades for this royal commission. Sadly, some people have taken their lives while waiting for it. I spoke to many victims and support groups yesterday and, to a person, they were extraordinarily welcoming of this announcement. Many of them were two inches taller yesterday than they had been the day before—such a weight had been taken off their shoulders because someone had finally listened to them.”

Since then we have continued to see the existing legal framework prove itself incapable of dealing with the ongoing legacy of child sexual abuse within the church and other institutions. Church assets remain protected by complex trust structures and the Church continues to use them to defeat genuine claims by victims with the now notorious ‘Ellis defence’. Many changes will be needed until this is adequately remedied.

There is a long way to go yet. So many victims are still coming forward to tell their stories for the first time. We have seen a limited inquiry take evidence into the appalling abuse by two notorious priests in the Hunter region. But those of us who are most concerned with long term remedies and deep justice are looking to the Federal Royal Commission.

Since his appointment in January to head the Federal Royal Commission, Justice Peter McClelland has received almost universal support for both his words and his actions. He has been instrumental in obtaining the necessary financial support for both his commission and victims support and counselling services.

However the ongoing work of the Federal Royal Commission will need the support and assistance of the new Federal government. Its task will take years not months and implementing any recommendations will almost certainly take even more courage and determination than establishing the Royal Commission in the first place. We have a collective responsibility, regardless of our political colours, to make sure this happens.

Download the PDF here: Royal commission to be legacy of Gillard – Newcastle Herald