The announcement by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
last week that its Government will set up a Royal Commission
of inquiry into institutional child sexual abuse is a major
step towards shining a light on the dark deeds, secrets, lies
and cover-ups of the past - and hopefully providing victims
with an opportunity for recognition and justice in the
Although its terms of reference are yet to be outlined, it
appears the investigation will be the most comprehensive
inquiry into child sexual abuse in Australia's history,
focusing not just on abuse in religious organisations, but
also state-care providers and not-for-profit bodies. It will
also examine the responses of child-service agencies and
There had been calls for a national and wide-ranging inquiry
after allegations by a senior New South Wales police
investigator that the Catholic Church covered up evidence
involving paedophile priests, thwarting attempts to
investigate hundreds of allegations of abuse in the Hunter
region since the mid-1990s. Ms Gillard said "the allegations
that have come to light recently about child sexual abuse
have been heartbreaking".
And the investigation could extend to New Zealand, with the
news last week the Catholic Church here will investigate the
handling of a paedophile priest who came to Hamilton from
Australia 30 years ago.
National investigations into historic child abuse and
cover-ups in the Catholic Church have been conducted in the
United States and Ireland, but there have been many thousands
of similar allegations made throughout the world against
thousands of priests - some of which have been successfully
prosecuted and victims compensated.
The widespread abuse has caused the institution much
reflection, but also continued criticism from many who
believe there is still denial of the extent of the problem
and its impact from church hierarchy in some quarters.
Certainly, the reaction from Australia's most senior
Catholic, Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell, to the
announcement has been greeted with scepticism and criticism
by victims. While Cardinal Pell said the church would
co-operate with the inquiry, which he hoped would unveil the
truth, he also criticised what he called "ongoing and at
times one-sided media coverage".
"We are not interested in denying the extent of misdoing in
the Catholic Church, we object to it being exaggerated," he
said. The cardinal also said clergy who were told of child
abuse during confession had the right not to report it to
That issue - which some of the country's politicians and
legal experts are arguing allows the church to be above the
law and should therefore be amended - has also sparked huge
debate, and is likely to be one of the areas the commission
Whether or not the Catholic Church has addressed the sins of
the past, this investigation will certainly leave it - and
the other organisations included - nowhere to hide.
For the sorts of attitudes and protections that were allowed
to occur in such organisations in the past have no place if
any of the organisations are to have a future.
And, although much of the abuse and allegations appear to be
historic, it must be remembered there is an ongoing legacy
for the victims and their families, who have had to endure
the original trauma, years of shame and fear, and lives
destroyed by suicide, or battles with drugs and alcohol in
attempts to erase the memories of the past.
The reality is - given the wide-reaching nature of the
inquiry - it is likely to be many years before victims and
their families have a chance for justice.
But the Australian Government should be commended for
tackling the issue in its entirety with a broad scope. It is
to be hoped for victims and their families the investigation
ensures the whole truth will come out.