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Child sexual abuse commission lets kids be seen and heard

1970s Ballarat, Victoria. Redemptorist Brother Grant Ross, a friend of John Lane’s parents, would come to his home, purportedly to look after him. During these visits, Ross sexually abused John and his five siblings. John then started avoiding attending his school – St Alipius. His parents didn’t understand why; he was an excellent student. They now presume he was being sexually abused there, too. John Lane committed suicide at age 19.

Since John’s death, Ballarat’s Catholic clergy pedophile ring has been unearthed. Men like John’s abuser, Ross, and Gerald Ridsdale, who has been branded ‘Australia’s worst pedophile priest’, became notorious through the findings of various investigations, including the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Speaking earlier this month at Australian Institute of Family Studies conference in Melbourne, Justice Jennifer Coate, one of the six royal commissioners, explained how the commission drew on evidence presented to it, in addition to external research, to shape its recommendations for making institutions safer for children.

Empowering children to help design safe practices was a powerful, recurring feature of Coate’s speech. She referred to the commission-authorised Taking Us Seriously report, which “found that, to feel safe, children need some power and control in an organisation”. Researchers from the Institute of Child Protection Studies at Australian Catholic University interviewed 121 kids aged 4 to 18 to reach this conclusion. One young participant remarked:

“I think adults think they know what kids need to be safe, but I don’t think that they do. They base it on what they remember from when they were kids and the world is different now. So they need to talk to kids and find out what it means to them.”

Coate also referenced preventative programs for pre-schoolers – specifically, the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Programs for Pre-schoolers report, which indicated that these programs “…appear to be effective at increasing young children’s ability to detect inappropriate touch requests, and increase their behavioural skills around what to do and say, who to tell and what to report if confronted by an inappropriate touch request”. Yet the report also found: “There is very limited evidence to suggest whether child sexual abuse prevention programs for pre-schoolers have an effect on rates of disclosure of child sexual abuse.”

Even if these programs for both preschool and school-aged children are effective, Coate acknowledged, preventative methods aren’t foolproof. So, reiterating the commission’s child-centred methodology, she outlined what adults can do if abuse has occurred – create a safe space for children to disclose it. In the commission’s Interim Report Volume I, there’s an explanation for why this is crucial: “A theme we have detected in all areas of our work relates to victims not being believed when they complain about abuse. A survivor told us: ‘I had plucked up the courage to say to a priest in the confessional box that I had been attacked by a teacher. He said to me, “What did you [emphasis added] do wrong?”

Yet, like the commission’s prevention recommendations, its response strategies aren’t absolute either. Coate admitted this shortcoming. “Our position is not completely settled,” she said.

Even so, she remained solemnly optimistic about the commission’s merit: “[it] provides the opportunity to tell the national story of children, sexual abuse and institutions so we can lay the foundations for a new story; one that provides a safer future for children in our nation.”

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will conclude in December 2017.

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