The Royal Commission – Australia’s Inquiry – an update

As Australia is the news through the IICSA child migrant investigation, the work being undertaken by the Royal Commission (RC) in considering issues relating to abuse across many different organisations in Australia should not be forgotten. We summarise below its most recent work, much of which is of relevance irrespective of the jurisdiction in which an organisation finds itself.

Hearings

A series of final hearings are taking place to inquire into the current policies and procedures of 10 institutions in relation to child protection and child-safe standards, including responding to allegations of child sexual abuse. These hearings will, amongst other matters, consider the responses to and implementation of, recommendations which have been made to date by the Royal Commission. It is reasonable to expect the inquiries in England & Wales and Scotland to ask similar questions, and to expect to see consideration being made by UK based organisations of the recommendations made in Australia. These are all available on the RC website.

A further hearing will meanwhile commence on 27 March to consider the nature, cause and impact of child sexual abuse in institutions. This will consider the nature of child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts in Australia, and how community understanding of abuse has changed over time. It will also look at the extent of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts historically and in contemporary Australia, and challenges to identification and prevention. It will consider if the factors that contribute to the risk of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts are:

  • Factors that make all children vulnerable to sexual abuse and heighten the vulnerability of particular groups of children to sexual abuse
  • Factors that may contribute to people sexually abusing children in institutional contexts
  • Institution-specific factors that may contribute to child sexual abuse.

It will also consider the impacts of child sexual abuse and institutional responses on survivors, both in childhood and throughout their adult lives, their families and supporters, and the wider community.

Research reports

Many good reports have already been published and we have previously commented on some of these in our blogs. The most recent are:

Disability and child sexual abuse in institutional contextsThe most reliable data suggests that between nine and 14 in every 100 children with disability are likely to experience sexual abuse. Children with a disability can be vulnerable to sexual abuse due to various factors including the locations and people with whom they spend time, the need for greater physical assistance and attitudes that children with disabilities are less competent and less likely to tell. The report includes recommendations for strategies to prevent future abuse.

The role of organisational culture in child sexual abuse in institutional contexts – This report looks at literature and some of the RC case study reports. It found that cultural factors associated with “total institutions” and “macho cultures” may be more conducive to the perpetration of child sexual abuse. This was because they were more likely to conduct their own investigations into allegations of child sexual abuse, rather than referring alleged perpetrators to authorities; to forbid children from retaining personal items and discourage the building of relationships with peers; to promote secrecy and withholding of information from children, staff and others, and/or command children to engage in or refrain from behaviours that make abuse possible and reporting less likely.

Children and young people’s views about their safety in residential care – Most of the children and young people who participated in this research described feeling unsafe in residential care due to bullying, harassment and the threat of sexual assault. The report’s conclusions include that children felt safest in residential care when it felt like home, for example when they were in a clean and welcoming environment, where they were able to celebrate events, and were well supervised by adults. To be safe, participants needed their residential care to offer stability and predictability. Many of the young people interviewed described their time in residential care as chaotic, found it difficult to feel settled and spoke of the high turnover of staff. Children were provided with a sense of safety when their residential care provided routine, fair rules and the ability to be heard during decision-making. Residential care felt most safe when adults and institutions took children and young people’s safety seriously and had proactive strategies in place to protect children from harm.

Grooming and child sexual abuse in institutional contexts – This report concludes that grooming can involve a range of behaviours that target not only children, but also others involved in gaining access to the child’s life including parents and caregivers and staff in institutional settings. Grooming is often an incremental process which involves three stages – gaining access to the victim; initiating and maintaining the abuse; and concealing the abuse. The best way to identify and prevent grooming and child sexual abuse may be through the development and implementation of policies and procedures, particularly codes of conduct, to prevent and identify such behaviours and through developing an organisational culture that prioritises child safety.

Consultations

Criminal Justice – Submissions to a consultation on criminal justice have been published and a seminar heard to discuss the content of the submissions. As part of this consultation a draft Bill has been published which address some issues relating to evidence. The benefit of cross jurisdictional considerations can be seen by the fact that this bill is based in part on laws in England & Wales which allow for much greater admissibility of tendency and coincidence evidence and for more joint trials.

Records and record keeping – Following a consultation last year, 40 submissions have been published which comment upon this issue. Five key principles have been determined, they are:

  1. Creating and keeping accurate records is in the best interest of children.
  2. Accurate records must be created about all decisions and incidents affecting child protection.
  3. Records relevant to child sexual abuse must be appropriately maintained.
  4. Records relevant to child sexual abuse must only be disposed of subject to law or policy.
  5. Individuals’ rights to access and amend records about them can only be restricted in accordance with law.

Case study reports

The following reports have been published:

Jehovah’s Witnesses – Although the RC only heard evidence from two victims as well as institutional witnesses, it examined evidence from case files held which recorded allegations, reports or complaints by 1006 members of the organisation. The RC found children are not adequately protected from the risk of child sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witness organisation and it did not believe the organisation responded adequately to allegations of child sexual abuse. It considered the Jehovah’s Witness organisation relied on outdated policies and practices to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse which were not subject to ongoing and continuous review. This included the two-witness rule in cases of child sexual abuse which, the RC considered, showed a serious lack of understanding of the nature of child sexual abuse. It noted the rule, which was relied on, and applied inflexibly was devised more than 2,000 years ago.

Yeshiva Bondi and Yeshivah Melbourne – This inquiry looked at the response of the Yeshivah Centre Bondi and the Yeshivah College in Melbourne to allegations of child sexual abuse. In particular, consideration was made of the influence of Jewish (or ‘halachic’) law on the responses of the institutions to child sexual abuse allegations and the experiences of survivors of child sexual abuse and their families and the community’s response to them. Consideration was made of the impact of a Jewish law, known as mesirah, which forbids a Jew from informing upon, or handing over another Jew to a secular authority (particularly where criminal conduct is alleged). Even though there had been an advisory resolution in 2010 noting this did not apply to child sexual abuse there was some discouragement within the community to report abuse and a lack of supportive leadership for victims of abuse.

Sporting clubs – This report looked at allegations linked to certain football, tennis and cricket clubs. The RC heard evidence from a female football player who had been repeatedly raped by her coach; from a female tennis player sexually abused by her coach in the late 1990s; and from three male cricket players who had been sexually abused in the 1980s and 1990s. The RC gave its opinion on the steps taken by each of these sports clubs in response to the allegations and also looked at the wider policies and procedures of national sporting organisations. It singled out the website ‘Play By The Rules’, which is administered in part by the Australian Sports Commission and which promotes child protection in sport, as a very valuable and effective resource. It provides information, tools and free online training to assist administrators, coaches, officials, players and spectators to manage child safety issues in sport.

The Church of England Boys’ Society and the Anglican Dioceses of Tasmania, Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney – The report concluded that most CEBS (a boys youth group) branches could operate in an autonomous and unregulated way and that abuse often occurred on camps, sailing and fishing trips as well as overnight stays at rectories and private residences. As a result a culture developed in which perpetrators had easy access to boys and opportunities to sexually abuse those boys. There were networks of sexual perpetrators at CEBS who had knowledge of each other’s sexual offending against boys and in some instances facilitated the sexual abuse of children. Systemic failures were also identified including child sexual abuse being treated as one-off offences, or isolated incidents of aberrant behaviour and historically, allegations of child sexual abuse not being reported to the police either at all or in a timely way. There was limited information-sharing between the dioceses about allegations of child sexual abuse; a lack of child protection policies and procedures within CEBS; and a lack of consistent record-keeping about complaints in CEBS at a national and state level. The report also identified minimisation of the offending, a focus on protecting the reputation of the church, dioceses, CEBS and individual clergy and links not being made at a national level in the Anglican Church regarding the possibility of a network of perpetrators within CEBS.

Geelong Grammar School – Evidence was heard from 13 former students who reported sexual abuse between 1956 and 1989. The report comments upon the different acts or omissions of the school at the times of reporting of abuse. It also concludes that before 1994, Geelong Grammar had no formal systems, policies and procedures in place dealing specifically with child sexual abuse, or to prevent child abuse. Although policies are now in place, there is no system to either monitor the success of the policies or capture how often teachers are reporting allegations, in accordance with the policies and procedures.

Brisbane Grammar School and St Paul’s School – The report considers specific incidents of abuse and the response, or lack of response to disclosure. Amongst other findings are that the head teacher did not achieve his most fundamental obligation, which was to ensure that students under his care were kept safe.

RG Dance and the Australian Institute of Music – We have already commented on this report in our earlier blog.

Submissions in a number of investigations have also now been made publically available.


Written by Paula Jefferson

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