It is nine years since child protection advocates first sought a Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse. It was supported by the Primate of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Aspinall. A group of Liberal Senators asked the author to write Terms of Reference – that is, what should be the focus of inquiry - which they then presented to the Prime Minister. Unfortunately he did not consult the services who had been concerned about child sexual abuse for many years and the proposal did not proceed.
I argued at the time that, because of the millions of victims who might want a voice, a Commission into child sexual abuse per se would be much too big and too costly and we needed to confine the inquiry to the systems that are failing to protect children – such as the criminal justice system, the Family Court, churches and the child protection services themselves. We needed to look at what our governments promised to do when they signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1990 and failed to do (for example, see Article 19).
A Royal Commission is a major formal public inquiry into a specific issue. A Royal Commissioner has powers, generally greater than those of a judge but restricted to the Terms of Reference. In Australia, the Commission is created by the Governor-General on the advice of the Government. In practice, once a Commission starts, no government can stop it. Obviously care has to be taken writing Terms of Reference and generally there is a date by which the Commission must complete its work. Royal Commissions are only called to look into matters of great importance and usually controversy. These can be matters such as the treatment of minorities, corruption in public services and matters of considerable public concern.
Royal Commissions last many years and, often, a different government is left to respond to the findings. In New South Wales—the Wood Royal Commission’s terms of reference were to determine the existence and extent of corruption in New South Wales Police to determine whether corruption and misconduct were "systemic and entrenched" within the service, and to advise on the process to address such a problem. In 1995, the Commission widened terms of reference to include investigating the activities of organised paedophile networks in New South Wales, the suitability of care arrangements for at-risk minors and the effectiveness of police guidelines for the investigation of sex-offences against minors.The Wood Royal Commission investigated police corruption using its very broad powers to expose and defeat the protective systems that powerful, but corrupt, public officials used to shield themselves from conventional investigation. Royal Commissions are usually chaired by one or more notable figures. Because of their quasi-judicial powers the Commissioners are often retired senior judges.
Royal Commissions usually involve research into related issues, consultations with experts and summoning witnesses under oath, offering indemnities, seizing documents and other evidence (sometimes including classified information), holding hearings in camera (in secret) if necessary and—in some cases—compelling all government officials to aid in the execution of the Commission. The results are published in massive reports containing policy recommendations. Due to the long titles of these formal documents –they are commonly known by the name of the principal Commissioner (as in the Wood Royal Commission named after Justice Wood.) While these reports are often quite influential, with the government enacting some or all recommendations into law, the work of some Commissions have been almost completely ignored.
The Prime Minister stated that the Commission would give victims a voice. That means that it could be very lengthy. It suggests that there could be Commissioners in each state or there could be travelling Commissioners. Bravehearts and the National Child Protection Alliance have submitted suggestions for Terms of Reference and the Family Court is close to the top of the list given the number of cases in their files where children have been ordered, against their wishes, to live with the parent they accused of sexually abusing them. The Commission has no powers of arrest but information can be passed on to police. It is hoped that there will be different methods available for contributing information. It is customary to allow people to come forward with information anonymously and if you are aware of child sexual abuse being ignored by any government service, school, church or other body and wish to share your knowledge, you should register your name and phone number now by ringing 1800 099 340
Emeritus Professor in Child Development
Dr Freda Briggs AO is Emeritus Professor in Child Development at the University of South Australia and author of "Smart Parenting for Safer Kids". "Smart Parenting for Safer Kids", reviewed by SingleMum.com.au here, gives tips on keeping children safe in a wide range of situations from cyber space and sexual abuse to bullying. The book is available in all good bookstores and can be ordered by phone on 03 9681 7275 or online at JoJo Publishing
You can read more of Freda Briggs's Profile here.
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