After five years of deliberations, the Royal Commission has finally wrapped up and provided over 400 recommendations.
The final report is 17 volumes (tens of thousands of pages) long – which indicates there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to protect children and to improve how we respond to child sexual abuse.
During the Commission information was received through private sessions, public hearings and a policy and research program. Four studies were also commissioned, during which researchers spoke with children and young people about safety in institutions.
Some of the main findings
- 78% of victims were abused multiple times.
- 87% of the reported abuse was done by males.
- 35% of the abuse occurred in out-of-home care settings.
- 27% occurred in a school.
- 91% of victims said they have mental health problems due to the abuse.
- Child sexual abuse is not just historical but still occurs within institutions.
- Child sexual abuse is widely under-reported to authorities.
- Many institutions lack clear procedures when it comes to responding to allegations of abuse.
Impacts of the abuse included ongoing mental health issues (such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse), difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and poorer educational, economic and employment outcomes.
What was learned about making institutions safer
That there is a need to:
- Create child safe communities.
- Improve online safety for children.
- Improve regulation and oversight.
- Develop national child safe standards. As a result of the Commission, ten benchmark standards have been introduced (see below under Volume 6).
What can be improved regarding responses:
- Complaint handling procedures.
- External reporting.
- Oversight – such as schemes that are nationally consistent across Australia.
The final report and recommendations
As said there are 17 volumes. The following ones are probably the most relevant to church and faith-based organisations (although there may be others that are equally relevant):
- Vol.6 – Making institutions child safe.
- Vol.7 – Improving institutional responding and reporting.
- Vol.16 – Religious institutions.
Volume 6 – Making institutions child safe:
The main thrust of this volume is that there needs to be a nationally consistent approach and strategy for prevention of child sexual abuse in institutions, as it is currently inconsistent and patchy. The strategy needs to include the development of national child safety standards.
The report also talks about the importance of awareness, as it appears there is a lack of understanding in many quarters of how child sexual abuse occurs and how perpetrators operate.
Recommendations for prevention include increasing awareness and knowledge of child sexual abuse, and creating child safe communities – i.e. those that make it hard for grooming and child sexual abuse to occur in the first place.
This also involves making cultural changes in communities and institutions to ensure children’s rights and interests are paramount, and creating environments where child sexual abuse is better prevented, identified, reported and responded to.
The ten proposed standards for making institutions child safe are:
- Embedding child safety within institutional cultures.
- Allowing children to participate in decisions that affect them.
- Keeping families and communities informed and involved.
- Upholding equity and taking diverse needs into account.
- Ensuring people who work with children are suitable, and providing them with support.
- Creating child-focussed responses to complaints of abuse.
- Providing education and training for staff on child safety.
- Creating physical and online environments that minimise opportunities for abuse.
- Continued review and improvement of the standards.
- Developing a child safety policies and procedures document.
Community initiatives include increasing awareness, countering problematic attitudes, strengthening the capacity of communities to respond, and removing social barriers to disclosure and seeking help.
Volume 6 of the report can be downloaded from here.
Volume 7 – Improving institutional responding and reporting:
Several problems were uncovered regarding the reporting of abuse. These include under-reporting, inconsistencies regarding obligatory reporting, barriers to reporting, lack of training and guidance, and inadequate protections for reporters.
Recommendations include developing nationally consistent approaches to mandatory reporting, strengthening protections of those that do report, and improving education and guidance on reporting.
With regard to responses, it was found that many institutions did not have clear and accessible procedures and standards for handling and responding to complaints. This included cases where allegations were not properly investigated, and children were often not adequately protected.
Recommendations include ensuring that institutions have clear and child-focussed complaint handling policies and procedures. These should cover making a complaint, responding to complaints, investigation, support and assistance, and making improvements. It’s also important that all complaints are documented.
The importance of independent oversight was also covered, to address barriers such as conflicts of interest. A nationally consistent reportable conduct scheme was recommended, especially to prevent advantages being given to potential perpetrators travelling between jurisdictions.
More detail on Volume 7 can be found here.
Volume 16 – Religious institutions:
Unfortunately, more allegations were heard as occurring in religious-based organisations than any other type of institution. These included churches, schools, orphanages, missions, presbyteries, confessionals and other settings.
More than 4,000 survivors attended private sessions, involving almost 1,700 different religious settings.
Some of the main findings:
- The commonest age range for the abuse starting was 10 to 14.
- On average it took victims almost 24 years to tell someone about the abuse.
- Barriers to disclosing abuse included shame, fear due to attitudes about sex, psychological manipulation, and fear of punishment and of being ostracised.
- Many leaders knew of abuse and failed to act. This included failure to respond, leniency, and / or failure to address abuse. Some offenders were found to have been shielded.
- The highest numbers of reported cases occurred in the Catholic denomination. Others included Anglican, Salvation Army, Presbyterian, Brethren, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptist, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran, Mormon, and Jewish institutions. Very small numbers were also reported in Islamic, Bahai, Hindu and Orthodox Christian faiths.
Abuse in religious organisations tends to differ from secular institutions due to the high level of status and trust often afforded to leaders. Priests and other clergy are for instance often viewed as representatives of God where the idea that they would molest children is unthinkable.
In many cases leaders ‘groomed’ children for abuse by developing closeness to their families, sometimes becoming a kind of ‘father figure’. Children that suffered abuse were sometimes threatened with punishment if they told anyone about it.
Abuse has been especially problematic in closed religious communities, where children had little access to the outside world and little if any sex education, leaving them very vulnerable to abuse.
In some cases perpetrators – often trusted men of power and status – had unfettered access to children with no boundaries in place.
The absence or insufficient involvement of women in religious institutions was also seen by some as a contributing factor.
These factors together helped to create environments that were favourable to abusers.
Responses to abuse have tended to be very poor. Examples include:
- Disbelief, denial, discrediting of victims, punishments.
- ‘In-house’ responses that were largely secret and protected the institution from scrutiny and accountability.
- Viewing child sexual abuse as more of a personal moral failing than a crime.
- Leniency, such as giving offenders second chances.
- Little or no risk management or monitoring of known offenders.
- Focussing on repentance and forgiveness, including encouraging victims to forgive and move on.
- Higher priority given to protecting the organisation’s reputation than to protecting children.
- Transferring offenders to other positions where they might still have access to children.
- Encouraging offenders to quietly resign in some cases.
It was reported that since the 1990s, some improvements have been made regarding responding to complaints of abuse. Some survivors have reported positive experiences of redress, including receiving pastoral care and support and apologies.
58 recommendations were made in Volume 16, many pertaining to specific denominations.
Regarding ordained perpetrators it was recommended that dismissal take place or at least recognition of the offender’s ministry be withdrawn.
In cases where a convicted person wishes to be involved in religious services, it’s up to the institution to properly assess and manage the risks. If the risks cannot be managed the person should not be allowed to participate.
People in religious ministry should also be subject to the same mandatory reporting laws as everyone else, including if the information was obtained during Confession.
Acknowledgement was given that many religious institutions have improved when it comes to handling and responding to complaints of abuse, including making offers of monetary payments.
The three separate books of Volume 16 can be accessed here.
For more information on child safety and reporting laws in Victoria, see our other child safety and protection articles on the website.
Written by Tess OliverTags: children, Childsafe, legal, risk management