Expansion ‘a bitter sweet milestone’

The announcement this week of an expanded Royal Commission into the abuse of children is a bittersweet milestone.

At first glance, the inclusion of faith-based institutions seemed to be a triumph for the victims and supporters who campaigned tirelessly for churches to be part of the inquiry.

The expanded inquiry would now include children and vulnerable adults abused while in the care of both the state and faith-based institutions.

Its terms of reference would allow for broader scrutiny of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse, and give commissioners discretion to consider events before 1950 and after 1999.

A series of reports would follow, concluding in 2023, and the budget had increased, to $78.85 million, to pay for an inquiry chairman Sir Anand Satyanand said would be the largest in New Zealand history.

But the press release announcing the expansion also contained four key words that jumped off the page almost immediately, and could yet make all the difference — "in the care of".

While the terms of reference clearly defined which state-care settings would be included, the section on faith-based institutions was less clear.

It said the inquiry would cover areas where a faith-based institution "assumed responsibility for the care of an individual".

Faith-based schools and residential and non-residential settings for faith-based care were included.

But fully private settings — except where the person was also in the care of a faith-based institution — were out, it said.

Exactly what else was covered remains open to interpretation, and nobody is yet prepared to say.

Would the inquiry, for example, include the actions of a rogue priest who abuses young parishioners or altar boys in a church presbytery, on day trips to the countryside, or while visiting the homes of his parishioners?

If not, the victims of Dunedin’s paedophile priest, Fr Magnus Murray, would be excluded.

And neither would the inquiry cover the actions of the Catholic Church, which moved Fr Murray to Australia, then brought him back to resume public ministry in New Zealand, exposing more young boys to abuse.

It is now thought Fr Murray abused at least 15 boys in Dunedin and others in the North Island.

All of them were in the care of their parents at the time, not a faith-based institution, and they trusted the church and men like Fr Murray.

It took decades for some of the victims to speak out but, under this inquiry, their voices would be silenced again.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has argued the inquiry needed to be true to ex-state wards, who she said first called for an inquiry into abuse in state care.

But it was also impossible to ignore calls for an expanded inquiry, meaning some changes had to be made, even if Ms Ardern was not originally in favour of doing so, she told media this week.

Unfortunately, the compromise means New Zealand’s inquiry could yet fall well short of the gold standard set in Australia.

There, a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse took a broader, clearer view of abuse involving religious institutions.

That included covering the actions of priests, even when operating away from their church.

Whether that will happen here, too, remains to be seen.

Ms Ardern and Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin have been reluctant to answer ODT Insight questions in recent months.

Before the expanded inquiry was announced, they said it was not appropriate to comment while the terms of reference were considered.

After Monday’s announcement, they referred questions to the Royal Commission, saying it was "their place to comment from here on".

A Royal Commission spokeswoman could not answer questions either, saying only the terms of reference would be reviewed to decide what was included.

One thing is clear, though.

Many victims see an opportunity to speak as a chance to heal.

If New Zealand does not follow Australia’s lead, boys already abused once risk being retraumatised.

The uncertainty keeps them on tenterhooks, waiting to learn if they will finally get the chance to share their stories.

If this Royal Commission is dedicated to understanding a dark chapter in New Zealand history and preventing any repeat, those stories need to be heard.


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