At 11am on the 22 October 2018, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivered an historic apology to survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. One of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission), the National Apology recognised that not only particular institutions, but society as a whole, failed to protect children and keep them safe.
As most schools will be aware, and as outlined in our previous article, the Royal Commission spent five years investigating the conduct and compliance of institutions tasked with keeping children safe. These institutions included schools, sporting organisations, religious organisations, foster homes, cultural institutions and many others. In December 2017, after 57 public hearings and over 8,000 private sessions, the Royal Commission released its Final Report, which contained 189 high level recommendations for reform. In total, over the Final Report, the Working with Children Checks Report, the Redress and Civil Litigation Report and the Criminal Justice Report, the Royal Commission made more than 400 recommendations aimed at Commonwealth, state and territory governments and at government and non-government institutions.
The Prime Minister addressed his historic apology to the survivors and also discussed the Government's responses to the recommendations for reform. The apology matters because it is the first time an Australian government has acknowledged the failures by governments, faith-based organisations and other community organisations to keep children and young people safe, and to respond appropriately to allegations.
In his National Apology, the Prime Minister acknowledged that Australian society and religious institutions had covered up crimes and not believed victims for generations. He also paid tribute to survivors and advocates who sought recognition and justice and said that victims who were no longer alive had deserved protection and respect. He acknowledged that the harm caused was not an isolated event. It was spread across myriad organisations. From a policy perspective, it showed that Australia failed to value children and their right to safety.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also delivered an apology, emphasising the fact that the survivors were never at fault and that it was a critical failing that they weren't believed. He also stated that "it is now the moral duty of this Parliament and future parliaments, not to second-guess the Royal Commission but just to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission."
Julia Gillard, who commissioned the Royal Commission in 2012, was also in attendance. The Queensland Government and the Northern Territory Government have also offered their support for the historic apology, with both making it clear that "participation in the National Redress Scheme and today’s National Apology is not the end of the conversation."
What the Federal Government Plans to Do Now
However, for the National Apology to be meaningful, there will need to be concrete action from the Federal Government to respond to the recommendations. In the National Apology, Prime Minister Morrison stated that the Federal Government has accepted 104 of the Royal Commission's 120 recommendations aimed at the Federal Government, while the others are being examined in consultation with states and territories.
The Prime Minister committed to a museum that will be a place of remembrance and reflection, as well as a place for cataloguing the events leading up to the Royal Commission and the National Apology, with the scope of the project to be worked out in consultation with survivors. He also committed to reporting to Parliament each year for the next five years on the progress being made implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission. The Prime Minister has also brought responding to the Royal Commission under his own Ministry by transferring the Office of Child Safety from the Department of Social Services to the portfolio of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He has committed to establishing a national centre of excellence, in partnership with states and territories, to raise awareness and understanding of the impacts of child sexual abuse, and to support the services being offered to victims. These were all in response to similar recommendations of the Royal Commission.
National Redress Scheme
More than 80 of the recommendations of the Royal Commission related to a national redress scheme for survivors, to which all the states and territories have now committed, along with the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting churches, and other groups such as Scouts Australia and the Salvation Army.
The National Redress Scheme, as stated in our previous article, commenced on 1 July 2018 and will run for 10 years. It was established by the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Act 2018 (Cth) to allow survivors access to a direct personal response, psychological counselling and compensation of up to $150,000.
However, the ABC News has reported that, three months into the National Redress Scheme, only a tiny fraction of the 1,500 claim applications that have been received so far have actually been paid. It is estimated that 60,000 survivors may be eligible to make a claim and that $4 billion is required to fund the scheme, with most of the money coming from the institutions where abuse was perpetrated.
The National Redress Scheme is also not fully national yet, with only applications made in New South Wales, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory able to be processed and even then only if the relevant institution has signed up to the scheme. The Tasmanian and Queensland Governments are coming on board on 1 November 2018, with South Australia and Western Australia to join the Scheme early next year. Of those institutions that have committed in principle to joining the scheme, most – including Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church institutions – still have steps to take before they actually sign up and enable applications for redress made to those institutions to be processed.
Charity Status of Organisations with Child Sexual Abuse Findings May be at Risk
Survivors of child sexual abuse have also repeated their criticism that the charitable status of the relevant organisations should be contingent on signing up to the National Redress Scheme. This will affect relevant schools with a not-for-profit (NFP) status in relation to their registration if this recommendation comes into effect. The Care Leavers Australasia Network (Clan), which represents those abused in children’s homes and foster care, also supports this revocation of charity status through holding their organisation to account for breaches of the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission (ACNC) Standards, particularly in relation to governance. Clan has also called for tax exemptions to be removed from those organisations not prepared to provide financial redress to child abuse survivors through the National Redress Scheme.
As schools would be aware, the ACNC has a range of compliance powers available when it finds that deliberate breaches of the ACNC governance standards have occurred, including revocation of charity status, formal warnings and suspension or removal of responsible persons such as board or committee members. The ACNC also commented that "charities should be aware of the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, which reflected the institutional child abuse royal commission’s child safe standards" and that “the ACNC will be publishing new guidance on a range of high-risk areas of governance, including the safeguarding of vulnerable people, in early 2019."
What Schools Can Do Now
As The Conversation has stated, to ensure the mistakes – and the trauma – of the past are not repeated, schools must undergo "a cultural change to value children, and listen to and respond to their views about safety and well-being". This means:
- enabling the participation of children in organisational decisions that affect them, including in relation to child safety
- implementing training about child protection risks and appropriate responses
- understanding how grooming behaviour could occur
- putting in place strategies to prevent or “interrupt” predatory behaviour.
In short, schools should be looking to implement a culture of child safety with prevention strategies (policies, procedures, training and reporting) in place which seeks to remove risky environments and discourage criminal behaviour. Schools should expect that registration, governance and even future funding arrangements could be contingent on their ability to meet these expectations and standards in relation to a child safe culture, as the National Apology illustrated the high standard that all organisations are now expected to meet.