Major step towards justice

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 future.

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 police.

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 authorities.

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 will consider.

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.