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Wednesday, 24 October 2018
Page: 11066

Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (16:00): I want to begin my contribution on the apology to the victims of institutional child abuse today by saying to all victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse that I am sorry. I'm sorry for the unimaginable hurt, pain and suffering that you went through and I'm sorry that you had to wait for so long for our nation to acknowledge your trauma. I am sorry that this apology came only after decades of suffering in plain sight at the hands of people you should have been able to trust. The true scale of abuse that has occurred on Australian soil, and occurs still today, is unknown. What we do know is that almost 17,000 people contacted the royal commission about institutional child sexual abuse; 9,325 victims and survivors provided oral and written testimonies, including children under the age of nine and adults over the age of 80. It is the courage of these people and their resilience—victims and survivors—that have spurred our national apology to you. You faced your fears, told your stories and fought for justice.

It has been a long fight. For advocates like Chrissie Foster, it has been a lifelong fight. After learning their two daughters, Emma and Katie, were raped by their local priest in the 1990s, Chrissie and Anthony Foster began their tireless fight for justice. They sued the church and gave damning evidence against the church hierarchy at the Victorian government's inquiry into this issue. Chrissie fought as her family suffered. To avoid haunting memories, Katie turned to drink, was hit by a car and is now permanently disabled. After her abuse, Emma began harming herself and died of an overdose in 2008. Anthony collapsed in his car and died in 2017. He was given a state funeral by the Victorian government.

For journalist Joanne McCarthy, receiving a call in 2006 began a journey that led to writing over 1,000 stories on this issue, stories that unravelled the truth about clergy child sex abuse and the institutional cover-up. When John Pirona, a firefighter and abuse victim, committed suicide in 2012, Joanne decided enough was enough. She wrote an editorial that called for the government to establish a royal commission into this issue. Soon after that, the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, ordered the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

On this note, I want to pause. I've been thinking a lot since Monday about the nature of what we're apologising for here. In one way, it's easier for me to comprehend the existence of evil in the form of perpetrators than it is to comprehend the response. There is something about the pure evil and perversion of offenders that will always be with us in one sense. But the fact that people could turn to people they ought to have been able to trust to call this behaviour out and to have those people turn the other cheek, to ignore these cries for help, is incomprehensible and that's the nature of what we are apologising for in this building today—the failure of institutional responses to the evil of child sexual abuse.

Without the perseverance of individuals like Chrissie and Joanne, this national apology and the royal commission would not have happened. Child sexual abuse took place under the watch of society's most important and trusted institutions in the most common places imaginable. Almost 90 per cent of the abuse happened in out-of-home care, in schools and during religious activities. Ninety per cent of the abuse took place in an institution managed either by a religious or government institution. Children were abused daily at their homes, at schools and at places of worship and leisure under the watch of religious and governmental institutions.

This apology shows that, with enough perseverance and grit, individuals like Chrissie Foster and Joanne McCarthy can expose the failures of our nation's most powerful institutions. They exposed institutional norms and practices that not only protected perpetrators but also allowed these heinous acts to continue. Over and over, survivors shared experiences of powerful individuals protecting their reputations over the wellbeing of children who had been entrusted to their care.

Denis Ryan was a policeman in Mildura when he began investigating a local priest. He compiled a list of victims and sought to have the priest charged, only to be prevented by a senior police officer who was also a close friend of the priest. Denis wrote to then Bishop of Ballarat Ronald Mulkearns, but received no reply. The church and police protection of the perpetrator caused Denis to lose his career and gave a green light to paedophile priests in the vast Ballarat diocese.

When Paul Tatchell reported that he was raped by Brother Dowlan, a master at his primary school boarding house, he was expelled from the school. On the night he was raped, he fought back against the clergy man, ran from the room and tried to call his parents for help. The school's headmaster and other staff locked him in a closet until the morning.

These examples, and thousands of others, are examples of a child's welfare being trumped by institutional traditions, of powerful and revered individuals in our society protecting the reputations of the institutions that they were a part of over the rights of the child. Chrissie Foster, Joanne McCarthy, Denis Ryan, Paul Tatchell and countless others have shone a spotlight on the need to always question these longstanding traditions and to put children first.

This need to question institutions continues as we implement the recommendations of the royal commission. One of the most debated recommendation is 7.4, which recommends that information disclosed during a religious confession must be reported to child protection authorities in compliance with mandatory reporting laws. Perpetrators admit to abusing children during these confessions. One Catholic priest, Father Michael McArdle, in a sworn affidavit, said that he had confessed to abusing children 1,500 times to 30 priests over 25 years. He was told, in his own words, 'Go home and pray.' Not only were these disclosures during confession not reported to police; they were also used by perpetrators as a way to seek their own absolution.

The Catholic Church has already rejected this recommendation. When asked whether he would report an admission of child abuse made in confession to police, Ballarat's Bishop Paul Bird said:

What I'm trying to balance there is the tradition or the value of confidentiality, which in regard to the confessional for the church's history has been treated as absolute.

I would argue that never has it been the time to balance traditions with the safety of children, but now is the time to recognise that longstanding institutional traditions can be wrong and harmful, even to the most vulnerable members of our community. Now is the time to put child safety and welfare first. I am proud that in Victoria we have bipartisan support that child abuse admissions made under confession will not be exempt from mandatory reporting.

Whether we are in government or in opposition, regardless of our role in this place, we must make sure that this apology is not just a symbol, that it is not just well-meant and powerfully-spoken words, but there is substantive action to prevent these kinds of cover-ups continuing and to prevent the perpetuation of this abuse. We must put force behind our words. We must not allow the tireless work of advocates like Chrissie Foster and Joanne McCarthy to languish in an apology that is simply empty words.

It is incumbent on all of us in this chamber to continue the hard work and difficult decisions made by people like the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, my predecessor in Gellibrand in this place; the former Attorney-General Nicola Roxon; and then minister for families, the member for Jagajaga, in their decision to establish the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. They finally said the government would not continue to turn the other cheek, but would shine a spotlight and expose what had been going on for so long. It is incumbent on all of us to follow through on turning the recommendations of the royal commission from words into actions. We must not allow this national apology to be a symbol alone, and I call on my colleagues to turn it into action.