A royal commission is a public inquiry that investigates important matters. In November 2012 the creation a national Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was announced. The royal commission's task is to examine how institutions have dealt with sexual abuse that happened to children in their care. The types of institutions the royal commission is investigating include religious organisations, schools, children's homes, government agencies and sporting clubs.
The Commission's work begins
The royal commission began work in January 2013 after six commissioners were appointed to lead the inquiry. An important part of the royal commission's job is to hold public hearings. Matters chosen for public hearings involve widespread systemic abuse or instances where key institutions failed to protect children.
The royal commission cannot investigate sexual abuse that happened in a family context. It also cannot award compensation or prosecute offenders. Instead the commission can refer cases to police. By May this year 160 allegations had been referred to police by the commission.
In the past survivors of sexual abuse were sometimes silenced from speaking about their abuse. To encourage people to share their stories the royal commission is holding private sessions. Anyone who has experienced sexual abuse in an Australian institution can request a private session. It does not matter how long ago the abuse happened. Through private sessions survivors can tell their stories directly to a commissioner.
When survivors talk about sexual abuse it can trigger painful feelings and emotions. If survivors don't want to speak or can't speak because of a disability, a support person can tell their story for them. The royal commission can provide interpreters and communication support workers. Counselling services are also available.
If survivors are too traumatised or unable to attend a private session in person they can talk over the phone or write a letter. The royal commission will reply to letters in writing.
People who have a hearing or speech disability can use the National Relay Service to contact the royal commission.
Children with a disability more vulnerable
The royal commission released an interim report in June 2014 to tell what they have learned so far.
Their findings show children with a disability are more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Reasons for the elevated risk include a lack of education about sexual abuse among children with a disability. Segregation from the mainstream community can make it difficult to find someone trustworthy to report abuse to, while an over reliance on abusive carers can increase a child's vulnerability.
The report found children with a disability find it harder to report abuse. Barriers that hinder reporting of abuse may be caused by expectations of obedience and cultures that disempower children with a disability. Children often struggle to find language to describe sexual abuse they have experienced. When a child has special communication needs the task of reporting abuse can be even more daunting.
The report also tabled the impact sexual abuse has on victims. Many survivors reported lifelong effects on their physical and mental health. Survivors often struggled to form close relationships creating a negative impact on their family and friends. Not being believed when reporting abuse led to a distrust of authority as well as feelings of guilt and shame.
Royal commission extension announced
Due to the size of its task the royal commission has been extended to 2017. The extension will allow more people to tell their stories in private sessions. Private sessions in Melbourne began in September and will run to November.
When the royal commission finishes its work it will make recommendations to improve laws, policies and practises to protect children from sexual abuse. The royal commission may also propose changes to processes that refer, investigate and prosecute offenders in order to ensure justice for victims of child sexual abuse.
If you were sexually abused as a child while in the care of an Australian institution, you can share your story with the Royal Commission by phoning 1800 099 340 or emailing email@example.com