Abuse victims deserve better
14th July 2012
Updated 16th July 2012
IN April, when the Baillieu government announced that a parliamentary committee would inquire into the abuse of children within non-government organisations, including the Catholic Church, this newspaper doubted that the inquiry would be up to the task. Nothing that has happened since, including this week's release of guidelines for those intending to make submissions to the inquiry, has allayed those doubts.
This is not a reflection on the qualities of the four Liberal and two Labor MPs who comprise State Parliament's family and community development committee. It is simply a recognition that a parliamentary committee with multiple responsibilities and a brief to report within 12 months cannot expect to deal with the magnitude of the problem. Nor, since it is inevitably subject to political influence, can such a committee exercise the independent judgment of a judicial inquiry or royal commission.
The Ryan review, which conducted a similar investigation of clerical sexual abuse in Ireland, took nine years to produce its 2600-page report, a damning record of brutal, degrading assaults, of the subsequent blighted lives of victims, and of collusion within the church in the shameful concealment of perpetrators. In contrast, Victoria's committee has only nine months before its 12-month deadline expires but has yet to begin work. Its prior commitments to two other inquiries have not allowed it to do so.
Labor MLA Frank McGuire, a member of the committee, has said that the inquiry will have to rely on the assistance of an experienced judge or senior counsel. It will indeed; so why not hold an inquiry under the direction of an experienced judge or senior counsel, with full independence, appropriate resources and realistic duration? Such an inquiry would certainly be more expensive than the one Victoria is going to have, but is the cost to be weighed against the plight of victims for whom justice has not been done?
Whether or not the government has opted for a parliamentary inquiry because it is the cheaper option, the guidelines for submissions certainly indicate that vindication for victims will not be a priority for the committee. In accordance with the inquiry's terms of reference, the emphasis will be on the handling of allegations of criminal abuse of children within religious and other organisations, including the question of whether systemic practices prevented proper investigation. The committee will also consider proposals for reform, including changes in the law, that might help to prevent the recurrence of such abuses.
A focus on what must be done in future is not in itself a bad thing. The Fitzgerald inquiry into corruption in the Queensland police force, for example, chose in its final report to concentrate on the need to change a culture that fostered corrupt practices. That invited criticism from those who thought the inquiry's main task should have been to unmask villains, but this had been done anyway in the course of the inquiry, which had full independence from the government of the day and was allowed sufficient time in which to do its job properly. Victoria's inquiry into child abuse will have neither of those things.
It remains mysterious why the Baillieu government has chosen a means of inquiry into grave abuses that may not reveal much more than has already been reported in piecemeal fashion by news media, and that may be ultimately ineffectual. A government that approached this issue courageously and appointed an independent inquiry would be more likely to gain votes than to lose them. And a church that accepted the need for such an inquiry would be giving a firm indication to victims that the protection of perpetrators has been finally consigned to the past.