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Wednesday, 24 October 2018
Page: 11059

Mr CONROY (Shortland) (12:28): Monday was a significant day in the history of Australia, with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition delivering the national apology to victims of institutional child sexual abuse. It was a very moving day in the national parliament and I think it demonstrated parliament at its finest. Unfortunately the region I represent has been terribly blighted by this abuse. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of the Newcastle Herald and Walkley Award winning journalist Joanne McCarthy in their Shine the Light campaign. This campaign was fundamentally instrumental in the Gillard Labor government establishing the royal commission. Indeed, in one of her last acts as Prime Minister, Ms Gillard wrote to Joanne. It's a beautiful letter, some of which I want to share with the House today.

Dear Joanne

I am sending you this letter in the very final moments of my last evening as Prime Minister. I do so with enormous pride.

Joanne, you are a truly remarkable person.

Thanks in very large measure to your persistence and courage, the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry and the federal Royal Commission will bring truth and healing to the victims of horrendous abuse and betrayal.

Please know that in your remarkable struggle to tell the story about this shameful chapter in our nation's history, you are not alone. Thousands of Australians share your passion for justice - I'm one of them.

I, too, pay tribute to Joanne McCarthy and the Newcastle Herald for the campaign that was critical to the royal commission.

At the time the commission was established, I was working for Minister Greg Combet, who was my predecessor in the seat of Charlton. He brought to the attention of the then Prime Minister and the cabinet the appalling abuses in the Hunter region and advocated very forcefully for the need for a royal commission. So I want also to acknowledge and pay tribute to the role Greg Combet and Julia Gillard had in establishing the commission. History will acknowledge this as one of the most significant achievements of her government.

One of the tragic stories covered by the NewcastleHerald in the lead-up to the royal commission was that of the abuse of John Pirona, who tragically took his own life. I refer to John partly because he was one of the original catalyst stories for the Shine the Light campaign but also because I know his father-in-law, Bert Moonen. Bert is a member of my own Labor Party branch and, in respecting his family's privacy, I want to acknowledge their contribution to the establishment of the commission. Greg Combet was particularly aware of the impact of abuse in the Hunter because of people like Bert, who had shared his family's story with him, and this story was conveyed to Ms Gillard and her cabinet.

Another important tribute to make is to Peter Fox, a detective chief inspector in the New South Wales police force. In a powerful letter to the Newcastle Herald, Mr Fox wrote:

Often the church knows but does nothing other than protect the paedophile and its own reputation.

…   …   …

I can testify from my own experience that the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church.

The impact of Peter's powerful letter cannot be overstated. Just a few days after its publication in the Newcastle Herald, Prime Minister Gillard announced the royal commission. Because of the bravery and determination of people such as Peter, the royal commission became a reality.

The royal commission spent many weeks in Newcastle and heard from victims of abuse, particularly from the Anglican and Catholic dioceses. Many of my constituents attended St Pius X High School at Adamstown. The commission and the criminal trials over the past decade revealed that what should have been a sanctuary of security and stability for young adults was, for many, a cesspit of depravity and criminality. Former Archbishop Philip Wilson, who spent many decades in the Hunter, including as a teacher at St Pius, is the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be convicted of the crime of concealing child sexual abuse. Like so many, I was very disappointed at the relatively minimal sentence Wilson received. However, he has been found guilty of his crime beyond any reasonable doubt and exposed locally, nationally and internationally as a criminal and, quite frankly, the scum of the earth for the heinous crime of covering up the abuse of innocent children. This is a moment of healing, but people like Philip Wilson should rot in hell for their crimes.

Having spoken about the role of the Hunter region in establishing the royal commission, I want to turn to some of the most damning findings of the commission regarding the response of the institutions to abuse, which is a fundamental aspect of this apology. The commission examined the sexual abuse of children in educational, recreational, sporting, cultural and religious institutions. This, of course, is a horrific truth to face as a nation. The commission stated:

The sexual abuse of a child is a terrible crime. It is the greatest of personal violations. It is perpetrated against the most vulnerable in our community. It is a fundamental breach of the trust that children are entitled to place in adults.

Regarding religious institutions, based on the information before the commission, the greatest number of alleged perpetrators and abused children were in Catholic institutions—institutions charged with the education, development and care of children. The findings of the commission in relation to the institutional failings of religious organisations are damning. Alleged perpetrators often continued to have access to children, even when religious leaders knew they posed a danger. Alleged perpetrators were often transferred to other locations but were rarely reported to police. The culture of some religious institutions prioritised alleged perpetrators and institutional reputations over the safety of children. The commission concluded that it is almost incomprehensible that religious leaders failed to recognise that the sexual abuse of a child is a crime, not a mere moral failure capable of correction by contrition or penance.

I will go further than the commission. How could any person who purports to be a religious leader, one whose primary task is the pastoral care of men, women and children, fail to recognise that the rape of a child is not merely some form of moral failing but the most reprehensible and disgusting of crimes imaginable? And then, being aware of these horrible crimes, the priority of these so-called leaders was not the welfare of children but the protection of the abuser and the status and reputation of the church. I find it so disturbing to speak these words, but what is beyond comprehension and most disturbing of all is the fact that institutions, being aware of abuse, then protected and moved on the abuser, enabling the abuse to continue. This is the most appalling and horrific of responses. There is nothing equivocal or ambiguous about this. Put simply: what happened should never have happened.

I want to end my contribution by personally paying tribute to the victims of child sexual abuse; to their families, friends and supporters; and also to those brave people who blew the whistle on the abuse, often against the most mighty and powerful organisations. It's a tragedy that, because of this abuse suffered, so many are not around to witness the apology.

This is an important week in confronting a terrible issue. The apology alone, although significant, is not enough. We as a parliament must commit to providing care, support and compensation to the victims of abuse and their families, and all those institutions responsible for the abuse must commit to the Redress Scheme. There can be no prevaricating or delaying on this. Survivors who have been traumatised deserve nothing less.

I end this speech by noting the fact that I have two young children. As with any parent, they are the most precious things in the world to me. My kids are currently in early education and my daughter goes to school next year. It's every parent's worst nightmare that any harm could come to their child at a school or any other place where trust is placed in others for their care. I end by echoing the words of Ms Gillard in hoping that the apology is a moment when we all commit to doing everything possible to prevent this dreadful systematic abuse of children's trust ever happening again. I repeat the message from the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader: I am truly sorry for the abuse. I am truly sorry for the abuse. I'm truly sorry that the institutions and the governments did not believe the victims of the abuse and I'm truly sorry that those institutions covered up that abuse.