News National Royal commission ends but change is just beginning

Royal commission ends but change is just beginning

child abuse survivors
Child abuse survivors Gordon Hill, Phil Nagle, David Ridsdale and Dominic Ridsdale gave crucial evidence to the commission. Photo: Getty
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Five long years. So many pivotal moments.

On Thursday, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will hold its final hearing in Sydney after an extraordinary and often traumatic journey exposing the full scale of suffering of so many and those who failed them.

The well-needed $500 million inquiry, rightly prompted by former prime minister Julia Gillard, shone a harsh spotlight and found a shameful mess.

It found there was another stolen generation living among us; adults all across Australia living with the mental agony that comes from their childhoods being lost to vile brutality.

It’s now up to politicians and leaders of religious organisations to respond to their final report and recommendations. Effectively and swiftly.

For we will never forget the moment when Ballarat survivor Phil Nagle waved a tattered black and white photograph of his St Alipius school class from the early 1970s. More than 12 of them, he said, had taken their life as adults after being abused by the Christian Brothers who worked at the school.

Victims and family of the abused protesting outside the commission earlier this year. Photo: AAP

“I just wanted to honour my classmates who hadn’t made it and to be able to share their story,” he told The New Daily  on Wednesday, reflecting how he shocked the courtroom in May 2015.

“I wanted to show the royal commission the full impact of what had happened and I’m proud to have played my part.”

There would be many more emotional truth bombs to come during this impressively forensic inquiry which has made a nation – and the world – discover the full scale of decades of systematic, cruel abuse and sinister cover-ups which occurred in our religious institutions, state orphanages and elite private schools.

Voices of the once defenceless and meek were heard.

There would be a total of 57 public hearings across 444 sitting days, where the commission heard evidence from more than 1300 witnesses.

Commissioners also listened to personal accounts from about 8000 survivors through private sessions. Their words changed lives and educated the media and the public.

Vitally, they also inspired confidence in those who had never whispered their own experiences to a soul to finally speak up or press charges.

Bravery inspired bravery.

There would also be frequent drama and outrage. Last year Cardinal George Pell drew gasps from the survivors watching his testimony in person in Rome when he said that the crimes of convicted paedophile Gerald Ridsdale were “a sad story and it wasn’t of much interest to me”.

The same gasps were heard when the senior Archbishops were called to give evidence this year in Sydney.

Despite everything they had heard about the importance of reporting abuse it was clear the “sacred seal” confessional box was still an ongoing dilemma if they were told of crimes.

And so it went on.

George Pell
George Pell is fighting his own historical sexual abuse allegations, and will face a four-week pre-trial committal hearing in March. Photo: AAP

On Thursday, however, comes the most important moment of all as it draws to a close.

All this effort will be pointless unless recommendations are adhered to.

The commission has already warned there must be changes in the culture, structure and governance of institutions if the horrendous problems found by the inquiry are to be properly tackled.

Not only will Canberra have to act but the Vatican should too.

They will be made to ask serious far-reaching questions about celibacy, seminary training, isolation of priests and even changing canon law if they really do want to show the world they are prepared to put the safety of children first. Above religion. Above anything.

On Friday, the full report will be delivered to the Governor-General and the commission chairman, Justice Peter McClellan, who surely deserves a knighthood along with Gail Furness SC, who will present the National Library of Australia with a book of 1000 personal messages to the Australian community written by survivors.

We haven’t seen the messages yet but who can blame them if they state: “We’ve spoken, so now do something.”

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