The first public hearings of the royal commission into institutional child sexual abuse began today in Sydney.
WHY IS IT HAPPENING?
The main aim of the royal commission is to investigate systemic failures within church and state-run institutions relating to child sexual abuse and related matters.
Earlier this year Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the terms of a Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse.
A joint statement from Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Mr Dreyfus and Families and Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin said the commission hearings would "mark the start of a healing process for survivors and their families".
"The royal commission will enable thousands of Australians who suffered as children to recount their experiences and express feelings that many carry to this day as a result of the harm caused to them," they said in the statement.
Commission chairman Justice Peter McClellan says the community has to acknowledge fundamental wrongs that have been committed in the past.
Olivia Monaghan from the University in Melbourne says, as outlined in the terms of reference, the commission is not going to be prosecutorial. "It will seek to 'shine a light' on past abuses and acknowledge the suffering endured by survivors and victims alike. Whether or not this includes public hearings is yet to be decided; the operational peculiarities of the commission are to be decided by the commissioners,” she said.
You can read Ms Monaghan's piece in full here.
WHAT WILL BE EXAMINED?
The royal commission will examine past and current abuses in organisations and how those instances were dealt with. This includes how claims of abuse are reported and investigated, where abuse occurred and how to best achieve justice and support for victims.
Counsel assisting the Commission Gail Furness, SC, said the types of institutions that would form part of the commission's investigations include orphanages, schools, churches, parishes, groups such as the scouts and organised sports.
It will also look at systemic “barriers to justice” for victims.
Newly passed laws will enable the commission to take evidence and information during private hearings.
There is no time limit on claims the commission can investigate, but it is limited to sexual abuse and “related matters” of people 18 years and below, where the abuse occurred in an institutional context – that is abuse occurring within an organisation or by members of an organisation.
HOW LONG DOES IT GO FOR?
The commission is required to produce an interim report by June 2014, however Justice McClellan says it will be difficult to complete a proper investigation by this time, as the task defined by the terms of reference was so large.
Justice McClellan said the commission would not likely finish on the current schedule, as it's expected at least 5000 people will want to appear before the commission.
He had also been advised the commissioners themselves and their staff could be harmed by constantly hearing the allegations.
The Royal Commission is earmarked to finish by December 31, 2015, however this date depends on the commissioners' recommendations in the interim report.
WHO ARE THE COMMISSIONERS?
The commissioners chosen represent a cross-section of expertise in law enforcement, legislation, mental health, children's rights and disadvantage.
1 - Justice Peter McClellan: Chief Judge at Common Law of the NSW Supreme Court.
2 - Bob Atkinson: Former Queensland police commissioner.
3 - Justice Jennifer Coate: Family Court judge, former Victorian coroner and first Victorian Children's Court president.
4- Robert Fitzgerald: Productivity Commission commissioner, former NSW deputy ombudsman.
5 - Professor Helen Milroy: academic and consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist.
6 - Andrew Murray: Former Australian Democrats senator, patron of the Care Leavers Association and Alliance for Forgotten Australians.
HOW WILL VICTIMS BE HEARD?
People who wish to share their experience with the commission can call 1800 099 340 between 8am and 8pm, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to GPO box 5283, Sydney NSW, 2001.
Ms Furness told the commission that callers will be asked for their contact details and the details of their claim, including dates when possible. However she said it was not expected that everyone could remember specific dates of incidents.
They can also speak to a commission officer and have their experience recorded, and people can also come to the commission in groups, she said.
Evidence given to other inquiries will be accepted.
Ms Furness said she would welcome the evidence of any whistleblowers who wanted to come forward.
Information from private sessions would only be passed on to police with the consent of those giving the evidence.
Free legal advice will be made available, as will other support services like interpreters when necessary.
Ms Furness said the commission would take extensive steps to reduce the stress victims may experience by giving evidence.
"Royal commission staff will do what they can to reduce that trauma including by having available trained counsellors," she said.
In January, Prime Minister Gillard said she expected there would be arrangements for the collection of evidence from people who had lived in Australia as children but had since moved overseas.
WHAT WILL THE ROYAL COMMISSION ACHIEVE?
The Commission is not a prosecutorial body, although it does have power to compel witnesses to appear and given evidence, and potentially override any confidentiality clauses from previous settlement cases.
At the end of the inquiry, the commission will make recommendations on how to improve legislation, policies and practises concerning child sexual abuse.
The commission is not tasked with determining matters of compensation.
Justice McClellan said it was vital victims of child abuse had their stories heard.
"Part of the task given to us ... is to bear witness, on behalf of the nation, to the abuse and consequential trauma inflicted on many people who have suffered sexual abuse as children," he said.
"For the individuals who have been traumatised, giving an account of their experiences and telling their story can be an important part of the recovery process."
WILL ANYONE BE PROSECUTED?
A royal commission can't prosecute individuals but any complainant to the commission can have their case referred to police if they so wish.
The Commissioners have been asked to establish an internal investigative unit to ensure criminal investigations are handled quickly.
"The royal commission is not a court and it is not a prosecutor," Ms Furness said.
The commission will not make findings that a named individual was sexually abused by a named person within an institution.
"It will, however, after according procedural fairness, make findings about the conduct of institutions and individuals within institutions in responding to allegations of child sexual abuse."