In Summary

  • Chair of the royal commission into child abuse speaks at Swinburne public lecture
  • Disregard for the rights of children led to abuse in Australian institutional environments
  • The royal commission will deliver its final report to the Governor-General on 15 December 

A disregard for the rights of children led to “heartless and cruel” abuse in Australian institutional environments, chair of the royal commission into historical sexual abuse, Justice Peter McClellan, has told a Swinburne public lecture. 

Justice McClellan was speaking at Swinburne as part of the final Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science Seminar for 2017. He is currently the Chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

He was also involved in the royal commission regarding British Nuclear testing held in Australia, and while the child abuse royal commission extends beyond that time to the present, Justice McClellan says that both commissions are due to the circumstances and attitudes found in Australia after World War Two.

World War Two changes a generation

Following the Second World War there was a significant influx of migrants to Australia, many of whom were children unaccompanied by adults, says Justice McClellan. Many of these children were supported by various charities and churches, living in ‘hostel’ type facilities or ‘orphanages’.

“Many of the children had been “taken” from or abandoned by their parents,” he says.

“With only minimal resources and rudimentary accommodation, many of those in the ‘orphanages’ suffered great hardship.”

Apart from the harsh physical conditions, many of the children suffered terrible physical and emotional treatment.

“For some ‘carers’, particularly from some religious denominations, there was a belief that physical violence and emotional deprivation were necessary to help a child to ‘grow’ and mature into a responsible adult.

“Aboriginal children carried additional burdens.

“Not only did they lose their family, they lost their connection to their traditional land and culture.”

Uncovering the abuse  

Justice McClellan says that the inevitable conclusion of this treatment of children was “heartless and cruel” and led to many instances of sexual abuse.

“We now know that many thousands of children were sexually abused in these institutions,” he says.

To confront complex issues such as this abuse, Justice McClellan says a royal commission is the most powerful mechanism available to governments.

“Over 15,000 survivors or their relatives have contacted the royal commission,” he says.  

“By the time we conclude our work we expect to have heard more than 8,000 of their personal stories in private sessions.”

Justice McClellan says that the prevalence of child sexual abuse is difficult to measure as it is believed that as many as 60 per cent of victims never disclose their abuse and only five to six per cent report it to authorities.

“Each of the personal stories we have heard in private sessions has had a profound impact on the commissioners and our staff. Without them we could not have done our work.”

Making changes

There is a continued need for the development of effective government regulation, an improvement in institutional governance and an increase in community awareness of this problem, Justice McClellan says.

“We must also develop our understanding of the needs of those who have been abused and be prepared to respond to those needs.”

The best interests of children must always be a primary consideration, he says. Valuing improving child safe approaches in institutions will reduce the risk of sexual abuse.

The royal commission has so far produced three policy reports for government and the final report will be given to the Governor-General on 15 December.

“Apart from detailing our conclusions, the report will cover a broad range of issues relating to both government and institutions,” says Justice McClellan.

“Fundamental rights once identified and adopted by a community cannot be easily cast aside,” he concludes.

“We cannot expound the virtues of a free and just society and express them through a statement of accepted ‘rights’ if we do not endeavour to ensure that the actions of government and our many institutions are consistent with those ‘rights’”.