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Monday, 12 November 2018
Page: 7707

Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (13:13): On behalf of Centre Alliance—including my Senate colleague Rex Patrick and the member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie—I rise to speak on the national apology to Australian survivors and victims of child sexual abuse. In doing so, I endorse the sentiments expressed last month in support of this motion by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives. I commend them and the contributions made today in this place, because the apology acknowledged the failure of Australian governments since Federation to afford children the protection they surely deserve.

Australia is on a mercy mission to ask childhood victims of institutional abuse to forgive us, to find it in their hearts to accept our collective, heartfelt apology for the heinous crimes they endured and that shame us as a nation. We're ashamed of the sexual abuse committed against terrified children in orphanages, churches, children's homes, recreational groups and foster care by those who were mistakenly trusted to care for them. In many cases, powerful people in taxpayer funded state-care positions abused the public faith put in them by turning a blind eye to what was happening. Others were more sinister in their offending, as one case in my home state illustrated.

In 2015, Families SA child protection carer Shannon McCoole was sentenced to 35 years in jail with a nonparole period of 28 years for sexually abusing babies and young children in state care. McCoole was also the head administrator of a highly sophisticated dark web child pornography site. He was arrested only after Danish police identified one of his photos and informed local authorities. McCoole's crimes prompted SA's own child-protection system royal commission. That inquiry heard that a colleague had reported McCoole for the suspected rape of a six-year-old girl a year before his arrest. But because McCoole had gained the trust of his managers, they dismissed the complaint without even reporting it to authorities. I'm still shocked that he could offend for so long under the nose of a government department and that reports of his evil could be ignored by that same department. All the while, his offending continued, and each time another little life was forever damaged by his putrid actions.

The National Redress Scheme, the National Office for Child Safety and the implementation of the royal commission's recommendations will indeed go a long way towards fixing the problems within institutions. But, sadly, the motion before us cannot be taken to mean that child sexual abuse is a thing of the past. The only way to tackle it is to be ruthless in identifying and reporting offenders and to do our utmost to ensure that children are not put in harm's way. First and foremost, that means listening and acting when suspicions are raised rather than ignoring, dismissing or minimising them. Like domestic violence and elder abuse, child sexual abuse, especially in the form of incest, has long been and in many cases still is taboo.

Despite the pain involved, Australia is becoming a more mature nation. We are confronting our past, acknowledging our failures and making more amends and efforts to eliminate multiple cycles of violence. Unfortunately, that can't be said for millions of other children throughout the world. In this respect, Australia is leading by example. However, in this global online age we must be ever alert to how the problem of child exploitation is continually changing. As the McCoole case proves, the internet looms large in those changes. With public institutions now becoming more tightly controlled, it's fair to say that predators are turning to the internet to create their own private groups. The eradication of child abuse in any form is and will always be a work in progress, and it is one that this and future parliaments must continue to be engaged with for the good of our nation.

This motion goes some way towards expressing the sorrow and guilt we all feel as a nation for the loss of innocence experienced by victims and survivors. It acknowledges this parliament's responsibility towards participating in their healing. It is undeniably our responsibility to say to the victims who prevailed over their torment—and, sadly, to those who didn't—that we are deeply sorry that they were treated like easy targets and not precious children, abused rather than nurtured, starved of love rather than nourished and encouraged, and left out in the cold when they should have been brought into the warm. We can't say 'sorry' enough for the cries for help that were ignored or never heard, the stories of extreme cruelty that were never believed, and the tales of physical, emotional and sexual torture that were pushed aside.

But, most of all, we are so sorry that it has taken this long for Australia to properly take notice and finally take action against a despicable wrong. The royal commission's final report reveals insights gleaned from over 8,000 private sessions with survivors, along with institutional responses to child sexual abuse. The gut-wrenching facts are that the average age of victims when first abused was 10 years old, over 58 per cent of survivors confirm the abuse took place in an institution managed by a religious organisation—primarily Catholic—32.5 per cent were in a government-run institution; and 10.5 per cent were in a non-government, non-religious institution. Alarmingly, of the survivors who provided information about the frequency of their abuse, most said that they had experienced multiple episodes and many by multiple people. And this is just skimming the surface of the sickening prevalence of such crimes over many decades.

I thank the royal commission for acknowledging that people have been dying to change things and get the justice they deserve. We will all be doing everything in our power to deliver on its recommendations. We will use our power and authority to take action without compromise. But, above all, to those victims who stepped forward to bravely share their experiences, we owe a profound thanks. Without this, we would not be where we are today. So thank you, on behalf of generations to come. And, finally, I would like to add my voice to say, however belatedly, we believe you, we respect you, we applaud you, and we owe you an everlasting debt of gratitude.