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Tuesday, 13 November 2018
Page: 8031


Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (19:39): I rise tonight to speak on the motion of apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse, as I was unable to make a contribution yesterday. There are few crimes that are more destructive than the sexual abuse of a child. It's one of the greatest abuses of trust and power against people who are powerless to defend themselves. For many victims, it can lead to a lifetime of suffering or a life cut short through suicide or health consequences. While many survivors go on to lead happy, fulfilling lives, they remain emotionally scarred by the abuse they suffered. Although it is the perpetrators who bear the ultimate responsibility for these horrific crimes, we all have a responsibility to protect children from harm.

There are times when the parents or legal guardians of children entrust the care of their children to an institution—maybe a school, a church, a youth development organisation or even some form of institutional care. Sadly, many of these institutions throughout the course of our nation's history have failed shockingly to protect the children in their care from harm. Not only have they failed to stop the sexual abuse of children in their care; they have failed to investigate it, to report to it the authorities, to provide support to the victims and to stop further abuse. Even worse, many institutions actively sought to cover up the crime.

The governments and parliaments of the Commonwealth, states and territories have a responsibility to put laws and regulations in place that will hold these institutions to account to ensure that they meet their care and protection responsibilities and that they face the consequences when they fail to do so. Yet successive governments and parliaments throughout Australia have also failed in their responsibility, and that is why an apology is necessary. The apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse is not only necessary, it is well overdue.

While the government, with the concurrence of the opposition and everyone in this parliament, has decided to offer this apology with contrition and sincerity, we must recognise that the hard work and advocacy of others has helped to bring it about. As co-convenor for many years of Parliamentarians Against Child Abuse and Neglect, PACAN, I have worked closely with advocates for child sexual abuse survivors such as the Blue Knot Foundation, the Alannah & Madeline Foundation and the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. I want to acknowledge the important role they have played in this process by advocating on behalf of the many survivors who struggled to speak for themselves. Also, the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard made the bold decision to establish the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Because of this decision, she will leave a lasting legacy in influencing how Australian institutions come to terms with past instances of child sexual abuse, prevent further abuse and deliver justice and healing when abuse occurs.

The most important contributors to this process were of course the survivors themselves. Without the participation of survivors it would have been impossible for the royal commission to expose the systematic failures and cover-ups and to come up with effective recommendations. The decision of thousands of survivors to participate in the process took incredible courage—courage which the rest of us could barely fathom. As painful as it was, they bravely chose to tell their stories to help protect others from future harm.

I thank the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders in the Senate for this apology. In doing so, I add my own voice to the apology and say to the victims and survivors: we are truly sorry—sorry we failed to protect you, failed to believe you, failed to deliver justice to your abusers and accountability to the institutions you trusted to care for you, and failed to give you the support you needed.

The apology is a vital step in the healing process, but it's only part of the process. We need more than an apology; we need action. We need a national redress scheme that gives serious consideration to the recommendations of the royal commission and the needs of survivors. The Australian parliament and state and territory parliaments across the country need to take action to ensure that all institutions with a responsibility for the care of children are able to effectively protect those children from harm. There must be laws in place to ensure the institutions are accountable for the protection of children in their care. If they fail in that responsibility, there must be serious consequences. If we are truly sorry, then we will commit right now to working day in and day out to do everything we can to stop this evil crime. If this is going to be a sincere apology, then we must just as sincerely utter the words 'never again' and mean them.