On the proposed royal commission into the sexual assault of children

In the wake of reporting about the alleged involvement of Catholic Church officials in the sexual abuse of kids, we now appear to have before us a proposed royal commission into sexual assault of children in relation to institutions in Australia. This seems an immensely broad inquiry.

I understand that some people resent the expansion of the inquiry. The Catholic Church surely has a problem, and has been embroiled in many such scandals across the world. But then what community doesn’t have issues of sexual assault and family violence? Such issues occur everywhere, and need to be dealt with in every community. The Catholic Church has a problem, but I expect the Royal Commission will reveal many more such problems across the country. Children who are sexually assaulted often do not come forward, and so hopefully the commission can help shine a light on the problem and help Australia deal with it more broadly. Assuming the government listens to what the Royal Commission has to say – something about which I do not feel particularly optimistic.

Because the Royal Commission won’t just focus on the Catholic Church, there’s the hope that we will be spared the oceans of ink decrying the persecution of the poor Catholics. And as much as we should acknowledge that the Catholic Church does appear to have a problem that it should take seriously, we should not pretend they are the only ones. In the Jewish community, there have been various allegations and scandals involving sexual assault of children too.    There were allegations involving the principal of a Jewish girls school in Melbourne. She fled the country. There was the charming Rabbi Feldman, who explained ‘I really don’t understand why as soon as something of serious loshon horo (evil talk) is heard about someone of even child molestation should we immediately go to the secular authorities (sic)’. Shortly afterwards, he was forced to step aside from his position as president of the Rabbinical Council of NSW.

And there were various  allegations of sexual assault of children at Melbourne Yeshiva.

My point is not to say that Jews or Catholics are deviants. It is that sexual assault of children is an under-reported, under-recognised problem, just like sexual assault more generally. What is important is that we recognise the problem and commit to fighting it.

Gerard Henderson’s contribution on the subject did not seem particularly constructive. He concluded by saying, ‘The good news is that the proposed royal commission will cover all instances of child abuse and not just crimes committed by Catholic clergy. Tragically, it is not likely to stop attacks on young Aboriginal boys and girls.’

He does not bother to explain why. The rest of the article is mostly about why he feels the Catholic Church is being unfairly picked on.

Henderson writes: ‘We also know, on the available evidence, that Indigenous children in some Aboriginal communities are being sexually assaulted in 2012.’

This is obvious. We know that white children in some white communities are being sexually assaulted in 2012 too.

When Henderson says ‘the available evidence’, what he presumably means is the vast body of scholarship and reports on sexual assault and sexual assault of children in Indigenous communities. The recommendations of these reports have been ignored, when not radically violated, so indeed, sexual assaults continue.

But something else we know, which never gets mentioned, but should, is that Indigenous communities have distinguished themselves from much of the rest of Australia in another way. They have shown immense courage in facing these problems.

For example, in NSW, there was an Aboriginal Child Sexual Assault Taskforce, which wrote the Breaking the Silence report on sexual assault of Indigenous children in NSW. It begins:

To ensure this report remains a positive and inspiring document for Aboriginal communities, and the community at large, ACSAT has tried to present its findings in the same spirit it found among communities. That is, in a way that is open and generous, acknowledging the issues are serious and complex, while at the same time as adamantly stating that it wants the abuse to stop, healing to begin and a better future for our children.

The Taskforce wants to make it clear that in all consultations, participants demonstrated a strength and courage that was humbling. With such qualities obviously within our  communities, the potential for action towards a safer community is great. This must be supported and grown across the Aboriginal community. …

The Taskforce acknowledges the people we met with deepest respect. They are our community champions who shared their stories with courage and dignity, sometimes at great risk to themselves and their families. These people spoke of the heartache of child sexual assault for victims and their families, and the devastating impact that it has on our communities. … The Taskforce is honoured by their honesty and shares their determination to make our communities safer for our children. Once again, we thank you.

Communities expressed concern that the findings of ACSAT won’t be published and that the recommendations won’t be implemented. They felt that they had contributed to many government inquiries in the past that had not been acted on.

Similar comments have been made by Rex Wild, co-author of the Little Children are Sacred report, about how impressed he was at the hefty turnouts by communities, eager to discuss and battle these issues. It would be depressing to compare their bravery and strength with certain other figures from other communities, who have not behaved comparably.

So it is just worth noting what happened next in NSW. The state government at the time was led by the aggressively incompetent Premier Morris Iemma.

The ABC reported on the government’s implementation of the report:

MARCIA ELLA DUNCAN, REPORT AUTHOR: I have been in communication with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs quite recently about the Government establishing a state-wide advisory body which is one of the recommendations of the task force.
REPORTER: How many recommendations did you make in your report last year?
MARCIA ELLA DUNCAN: 119 recommendations.
REPORTER: And how many would you say have been acted on in any way?
MARCIA ELLA DUNCAN: To my knowledge, this is the only one.

Back in the days of being in opposition, Barry O’Farrell declared ‘If Morris Iemma was fair dinkum about ending child sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, last December he would have put $25 million into backing this report.’ No money was given, no action was taken.

O’Farrell is now in power. If there is any evidence that he has implemented any of the recommendations, or shown in any way he was ‘fair dinkum’ about the report, I have yet to find it. Australian governments are happy to expose sexual assault in Indigenous communities. They just don’t care about the suffering, they are not willing to invest in communities or help empower them to deal with their socio-economic issues. I am hopeful that if the Royal Commission is broad enough, affected communities across Australia will be strong enough to compel the government to act on its recommendations. But god knows Australia has enough reports on sexual assault lying around completely ignored by governments, collecting dust.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

More by Michael Brull ›

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  1. It’s about time….and for the sake of the children…..STOP TALKING ABOUT THE ROYAL COMMISSION AND HURRY UP AND START!!!
    I can’t help thinking that if sexual assaults were taking place in a white hippie communes somewhere, to the same extent, effectual investigations would have been done years ago.

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