Publishing its landmark report, the world-first commission will have profound implications for the governance of institutions with responsibility for children.

    A scathing final report will see increased scrutiny over institutional governance in order to prevent child sexual abuse, if the Federal Government and state and territory counterparts follows its recommendations. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission) published its final report (17 volumes and 189 recommendations) on Friday 16 December, laying down an expansive roadmap providing redress to past survivors and increasing institutional accountability to protect children into the future.

    The Royal Commission held over 8,000 private sessions, made over 2,000 referrals to authorities (including police) and commissioned and conducted over 40 research projects. It covered a range of institutions including religious, government and non-government schools, and sports/recreational clubs. The Royal Commission’s work is unprecedented in its scale, complexity and quality and is being “acknowledged internationally as a model of best practice”, according to Professor Ben Mathews at Queensland University of Technology.

    Prioritising reputation over child wellbeing

    The Royal Commission took aim at institutions’ cultural failings where abuse had occurred, finding “Many institutions we examined did not have a culture where the best interests of children were the priority. Some leaders did not take responsibility for their institution’s failure to protect children. Some leaders felt their primary responsibility was to protect the institution’s reputation, and the accused person.” It found in the course of investigations “poor practices, inadequate governance structures, failures to record and report complaints or understating the seriousness of complaints” had been frequent amongst the institutions they examined.

    It blasted some leaders for underestimating the severity of occurrences of sexual abuse. “The failure to understand that the sexual abuse of a child was a crime with profound impacts for the victim, and not a mere moral failure capable of correction by contrition and penance (a view expressed in the past by a number of religious leaders) is almost incomprehensible.”

    There were a number of common elements contributing to the occurrences of child sexual assault in religious institutions including a combination of “cultural, governance and theological factors”, where the structure and governance of religious institutions may have held those bodies back from responding to allegations effectively. “Independent, autonomous or decentralised governance structures often served to protect leaders of religious institutions from being scrutinised or held accountable for their actions, or lack of action, in responding to child sexual abuse. In some religious institutions, the absence or insufficient involvement of women in leadership positions and governance structures negatively affected decision-making and accountability,” the Royal Commission found.

    Hyper-masculine and hierarchical cultures factors in non-government schools

    Almost one in three survivors, 2,186 survivors or 31.8 per cent, the Royal Commission interviewed were abused in a school setting, with 1,570 or 71.8 per cent of those survivors abused in religious schools. “We heard of many instances of abuse ‘clusters’ in non-government schools, where a perpetrator or perpetrators would abuse multiple students over time.” The report noted particular institutional factors in non-governments schools which may increase the risk abuse and prevent disclosure. They included: “concern for a school’s reputation and financial interests; hyper-masculine and hierarchical cultures; a sense of being part of a superior and privileged institution; the unquestioning selection of ex-students for employment; and long-serving principals in governance structures with little or no accountability in the area of student wellbeing and safety”.

    The Royal Commission found, “Good governance processes ensure that every school and its leaders understand their obligations to keep children safe, and are held accountable if they do not. Risk is created by complex and opaque governance, leadership that fails to notify school boards of child sexual abuse, inadequate recordkeeping and limited information sharing.”

    Poor complaints handling was another common governance deficiency for a number of institutions. For sports and recreation bodies the Royal Commission found, “Sometimes the complaint was not adequately investigated by the institution. Where an investigation was conducted, it was sometimes initiated after considerable delay and handled in an inappropriate and insensitive manner. We heard of instances where managers did not act immediately in response to complaints of abuse, failed to adequately assess and manage risks, and enabled the alleged perpetrator to have continued access to children.” These issues were exacerbated in smaller institutions due to limited resources, closely connected groups of people presenting challenges to handling complaints confidentially, or “situations in which the subject of the complaint was also the owner of the institution”.

    Government oversight

    In addition to the establishment of a National Office for Child Safety in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Royal Commission has called on states and territories to establish their own independent oversight bodies. The bodies would support the National Office in the implementation of the Royal Commission’s ‘Child Safety’ standards. Child Safety Standard 1 focuses on ensuring “child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture”, requiring institutions to publicly commit to child safety and their leaders to “champion a child safe culture”. State-based oversight bodies would partner with peak bodies, professional standards bodies and/or sector leaders as well as facilitate cross-jurisdictional information sharing for enforcement purposes.

    The Government has already committed to a redress scheme for survivors, announcing on 16 December it would provide $52.1 million to support survivors through compensation, counselling and, if desired, enforcing apologies from the institutions where the abuse occurred. Pursuant to the Royal Commission’s interim report, a number of jurisdictions have removed the statute of limitations for survivors to pursue civil remedy for past abuse.

    In a statement, the Government said it would also “establish a taskforce to consider and coordinate action on the recommendations and track the progress made by all Australian governments”. That taskforce will operate from January 2018 until June 2020. The Government said it will respond to the Royal Commission’s recommendations in full this year.

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