National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (1)

October 29, 2020

Two years ago this parliament said the words that so many survivors of institutional child sexual abuse needed to hear: 'We believe you.' Their willingness to share their stories through the royal commission revealed abuse, violation and horror that so many had carried in silence for decades. They revealed the power that had been used to silence them, as children and as adults, by institutions that had promised to care for and protect them—institutions like churches, clubs and charities. This was a national shame, and this parliament apologised.

But an apology was only the start. Even now some institutions do not accept their responsibility. They have not signed up to the scheme. As is appropriate, the government is talking about naming those institutions, but it could go further. Institutions who refuse to participate deserve a higher penalty, like losing their tax deductibility status.

Blaxland resident Glen Fisher gave evidence at both the Wood royal commission in the nineties and to the one we're speaking of today. He spoke of his experience of being abused both physically and sexually while in refuges, homes and foster care, and during his recovery from heroin addiction. His evidence led to the conviction and imprisonment of several of his abusers, and additional cases are still underway. But it wasn't the royal commission that gave him closure; it was publishing a book last year, Predator's Paradise, about his experience. Glen runs groups for people who've been abused and wants to show them that it is possible to survive. The father of five and grandfather of five says he wants people to know it's safe to speak up. As Glen told me, survivors of abuse don't need to live in silence and fear. The shame doesn't belong to them. The shame belongs to their abusers.

Numerous lawyers have told Glen that he doesn't meet the criteria to be considered eligible for the Redress Scheme, but that doesn't stop him being concerned about the way the current processes are hurting people. He says the retelling of stories has been really damaging for some and redress is causing even more pain. The complexities of the system, he fears, are overwhelming some survivors. The Redress Scheme has received more than 8,200 applications and paid out more than $315 million, but the wait for payments is long, and we want to work with the government to improve this system.

One of my constituents wrote to me this week of his experience in trying to lodge an application for redress: 'I lodged an application for redress with the National Redress Scheme on 7 April. Upon lodging the application, I received a brief phone call acknowledging receipt of my application. Approximately six weeks later, I called to inquire as to the progress of my application. I was told that my application looked great and was progressing well and if I didn't hear anything I should call back in a week. There was no contact, so I called again after a week. The person I spoke to this time told me that I should not have been told to call back, that I had to wait for further contact from the scheme. When I inquired as to how long it would be or even how long the process normally takes, I was told that they couldn't give me any information at all regarding timeframes.'

And he went on: 'I called two weeks ago, around about 1 October and went through to voicemail. I left a message requesting a call back. A week later, I had not had a response so I called and left another message. Both of these calls were made during business hours. I then received a call later that same day responding to the first call. I was told again that there was no information that could be shared with me.'

He goes on to say that people lodging these applications have been forced to relive and describe traumatic experiences, often having felt that the institution involved with the original abuse was not likely to act on the abuse. The lack of information and clarity around expected time frames, he says, and the lack of feedback from the scheme can feel like another institution putting bureaucracy ahead of victims' needs. He says, 'I'm not asking for my application to be fast-tracked. I just need clarity around when I should except a resolution. If I'm feeling like this I'm sure there are many others who are also feeling this way and not speaking up out of a sense of hopelessness.'

Those words shared with me just earlier this week illustrate the problem that people are finding, but it's not a lone experience: the process is bureaucratic, survivors are ageing and they are feeling overwhelmed. As of September the scheme was still processing 3,187 applications. As the ongoing work of CLAN, who did so much in the lead-up and during the royal commission—and that of other advocate groups—shows, the redress system is not yet achieving the aims laid out by the royal commission.

There are a number of changes we'd like to work with the government on to make it a better system. The matrix used to determine payments is arbitrary and needs to be fixed. The cap on payments should be lifted to $200,000 as recommended by the royal commission. The ongoing psychological counselling and support for recipients needs to be increased. There's a need for an early release scheme, similar to that which operates in Scotland, so that people over a certain age or who are unwell can receive an early payment or part payment so they receive something in their lifetime. We've recently learned that if you're from the Stolen Generation and received a payment under that process, that payment is deducted from your redress payment. That's just simply wrong and an insult to people who have suffered immeasurably. We also need to see the Commonwealth commit to be a funder of last resort for those institutions that no longer exist or don't have the resources to provide redress. People who were abused as children in those institutions shouldn't be penalised because the responsible organisation is no longer around. And there needs to be provision that, if people ask for a review of the amount they've received, the reviewed amount can't be any less than they were originally given.

The royal commission was about justice. It began in 2012 and the report into redress was released in 2015, with a final report in 2017. The commission has carried a heavy load. There were 42,000 calls handled, 26,0000 letters and emails received, 8,000 private sessions held, and 2,500 referrals to authorities, including police. As the commission said in its final report:

For victims and survivors, telling their stories has required great courage and determination.

It noted that they'd also heard from parents, spouses and siblings about the abuse of their relatives, many of whom had died, sometimes by suicide. To those survivors, we use the second anniversary of the apology to repeat: it was never your fault and you have nothing to be ashamed of; you did nothing wrong. It is this parliament's responsibly and will remain this parliament's responsibility to do everything we can to see that what was recommended for these people by the royal commission, what was promised by this parliament, is delivered.