National News

Five years in the Royal Commission: key lessons

Wednesday 28 March 2018

David Halliday, Media and Communications Office

Last week Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald AM delivered the keynote address to the MacKillop Family Services national conference Child Safe Organisations: Prevention and Practice Beyond the Royal Commission at the MCG in Melbourne.

In his presentation, Key Learnings from Five Years at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Important Messages for Child and Family Welfare and Education Sectors, the commissioner was uncompromising in his assessment of the key lessons Australian institutions need to learn.

Throughout the Royal Commission, Mr Fitzgerald bore witness to the voices of 8000 victims of child sexual abuse and their narratives. In that time, over 4000 institutions were reported.

One of the main points he made was the importance of examining the past in order to proceed to a safer future. ‘Australia cannot trust organisations until they have proved they have learned the lessons of the past,’ said Mr Fitzgerald. ‘Many organisations are now busy making changes to create child safe environments. But it really fails the test if you don’t examine what went wrong in the first place.’

‘The Australian community should not trust institutions until you can demonstrate you have heard the stories of the past, you’ve heard the voices of victims of survivors, and you have learnt those lessons,’ he said.

Abuse is not a recent phenomenon, explained Mr Fitzgerald, and the Catholic Church is no different to any other church in Australia with a long history where there’s been abuse. ‘In the early colonial days of Australia about 33 priests were removed from Australia and returned overseas—some for child sexual abuse,’ he said.

‘In 1870, Mary MacKillop and her sisters were excommunicated and disbanded for reporting Franciscan priest Fr Ambrose Patrick Keating who was sexually abusing children. After a further investigation, MacKillop and her sisters were reinstated.’

‘We look to the past to see failure but also to see people who have stood up and done the right thing. There have always been people who have had the courage to stand up when they saw abuse. It’s not without risk when you do—there will be sometimes adverse consequences.’

Unsafe environments for children were present in institutions of all types across Australia, he explained. The fact that risk exists is not up for discussion, ‘but it’s a question of whether you can reduce that risk.’ Throughout his address, Mr Fitzgerald outlined a number of points essential for each institution to act upon to create safe environments for children.

1. CREATE A COMMUNITY OF KNOWLEDGE AROUND THE ISSUE
Where everyone within your institution that engages actively and regularly in the conversation of child safety. Unless you can have a conversation about abuse with everyone involved in the organisation, then the job of creating a child safe environment won’t be completed.

2. CHANGE THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

The first step to reducing situational factors leading to abuse. A child should never be in a private space with an adult where they are not visible to others. Ensure private rooms where a child might be alone with an adult—for a music lesson at school, for example—have transparent glass doors. Ensure children are not admitted into spaces like the confessional alone; instead, confession should be conducted in a visible and open space.

3. UNDERSTAND THE NATURE OF PERPETRATORS.
Not all offenders are the same. Mr Fitzgerald explained how in the Royal Commission, he conducted several hundred private sessions jails with sex offenders to learn what motivates them. He discerned there were three different types of perpetrators: the persistent offender, likely to offend against multiple children on multiple occasions over time; the situational offender who can be in normal relationships but who abuses children due to proximity; and the long-term offender who sees the abuse as part of a loving attachment.

4. UNDERSTAND VULNERABILITIES IN CHILDREN

Children most at risk are those who have experienced some abuse earlier in life. The second most vulnerable group is aspiring and ambitious students who form special relationships with coaches or teachers to advance in one particular skill. Family members and guardians are also groomed in these cases, and often acquiesce to the abuse on the basis that to disclose it would damage future career prospects.

5. CHANGE THE CULTURE

This is the number one principle in child safe standards and by far the most important factor. Abuse isn’t an issue of its time, as much as it’s an issue of a particular institution’s culture. Many cases of extraordinary physical and emotional abuse existed in boys and girls homes with cultures that embraced stern corporal punishment. In others, where there was a culture of love and support and compassion, there was no abuse. ‘If you can’t get culture right, it doesn’t matter what else you do,’ said Mr Fitzgerald. ‘What we’ve seen over the decades is that bad cultures breed bad conduct.’

6. RECOGNISE EXAMPLES OF BAD CULTURAL CONDUCT
Bad cultural conduct manifests in many ways, some that might have formerly been acceptable organisational practise. For example, bad cultural conduct is discrediting anyone who challenges or tries to improve the culture; bad cultural conduct is burying bad news and restricting the access involved parties have to information, and bad cultural conduct is caring foremost about protecting the reputation of the organisation.

7. MAINTAIN CONSTANT AWARENESS
Child safety requires constant assessment of risk. Child safety isn’t a once-off measure to establish policies. Rather, it’s something that must be incorporated into an organisational framework for the foreseeable future.

8. CHECK YOUR OPINIONS AT THE DOOR
‘It doesn’t matter what you think,’ said Mr Fitzgerald. Mandatory reporting, the new reportable conduct regime and new proposed criminal penalties are designed to remove the element of what you think. Mandatory reporting takes away your personal opinion—if X happens, you do Y. If a set of circumstances arise, there is a clear course of action. Too many times, the Royal Commission found the opinion of a particular staff member often overrides their duty or obligations to investigate and act appropriately.

9. ADOPT CHILDREN’S BEST INTERESTS
Providing a service for children isn’t the same as acting in a child’s best interests. The whole organisation needs to consider the best interests for children ‘from boardroom to basement’, Mr Fitzgerald said. ‘With any significant decisions, ask have we just acted in the best interest of a child? It’s the simplest question to ask.’

10. LISTEN TO AND RESPECT CHILDREN
Actively and respectfully listen to young people. The voices of children are important. If you were a child, what would be the visible signs that demonstrate your institution is a safe environment?

11. CREATE ORGANISATIONS OF OPENNESS AND TRANSPARENCY

Organisations need to be far more open. A transparent institution shares information. It explains its decisions. It works along clearly defined operating principles. It solicits opinions from stakeholders and welcomes honest feedback. The more closed the institution, the higher the chance of wrongdoing towards children. This particularly affects religious groups.

12. BECOME RESPONSIBLE ORGANISATIONS

The organisation should feel a deep sense of responsibility. The end game is not policies, procedures and requirements, but institutions that are safe. That means having a deep understanding about the issue and embracing an ongoing commitment to child safety.
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