16 May 2018
(Second Reading Debate, 15 May 2018, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
The National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (Commonwealth Powers) Bill 2018 will give survivors of institutional sex abuse a pathway to receive compensation for their suffering, counselling and psychological support and a personal response from the institution responsible for their abuse, through the National Redress Scheme. In its five-year inquiry, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse uncovered serious ongoing and systemic abuse of children associated with institutional care, including at school, in out-of-home care and at church. It found poor responses from institutions to reported abuse, which at best treated perpetrators leniently and at worst allowed abuse to continue or put other children at risk
The royal commission identified failures over generations that have far-reaching and ongoing impacts on survivors. These impacts have significant implications for physical and mental health that can result in serious difficulties for survivors. They can prevent survivors from forming positive relationships, developing literacy and numeracy skills and gaining employment, which can prevent them from participating fully in the community. Surviving this abuse shows a high correlation with mental illness, addiction, self-harm and other destructive behaviours, leading to long-term and serious impacts. A number of survivors have told me about the extent and overwhelming nature of this abuse on their lives.
While survivors come from all walks of life, it was very sad to read about the high representation of the Stolen Generation, former child migrants and Forgotten Australians. One in five survivors of abuse in residential institutions managed by religious organisations before 1990 were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. This highlights the extent to which heartless past State policies ruined people's lives. While some people have been able to get back on their feet after their harrowing experiences, many have not and have struggled in life. There is a strong cohort of survivors whose experiences have led to a significant distrust of government and authorities, and the redress scheme will deliver justice to them only if they have access to advocacy services to help them navigate through the scheme.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme provides an example of an important national scheme that risks failing those who need it because they cannot navigate the system and State-funded disability advocacy services may not retain their existing funding levels as services transfer to the Federal system. I welcome the Government's decision to withdraw plans to cut advocacy funding but I understand that funding is being reduced if organisations receive Federal grants for non-advocacy activities. When it comes to the redress scheme, the Government must engage with non-government organisations and community legal centres to ensure that they are adequately equipped to help survivors access the scheme. While the scheme includes counselling and psychological support as a part of redress, it is important that applicants have access to counselling during the application process, as many survivors will be reliving their experiences and could become retraumatised.
I am concerned that people in jail will not have access to redress under this scheme and will have to wait until they are released. While there will be a discretionary power that could enable prisoners to access their rightful compensation, it is easy to see how this could be politicised. We all know that some aspects of the media love to target offenders who get money. As I said earlier, many survivors have struggled with life and have significant challenges directly as a result of their experiences in institutional care. These factors can result in some survivors ending up in jail for various reasons. If people have been victims of institutionalised child sexual abuse they should be entitled to justice for their lost childhood and the long-term damage this has caused them, regardless of what has happened since.
A number of survivors of child sexual abuse have told me about the extent and overwhelming nature of abuse on their lives and how this has led to them having no money, no home and no support. A survivor who sleeps rough in my electorate has been on the social housing waiting list for years and his experience led me to call for priority housing for survivors. Government programs and services should acknowledge the serious impacts of child sexual abuse and the role that governments played in allowing it to happen in institutional care when assessing people for help. I welcome the Minister's commitment today in response to my question that survivors will be given priority housing if they need it. This will go a long way to helping people to heal.
The success of the redress scheme will rely on institutions opting to partake, and I encourage all institutions that played a role in children in their care experiencing sexual abuse to sign up and help with the healing process so that both survivors and institutions can move forward. While it is clear from the commission's report that sexual abuse occurred in a broad range of institutions and contexts, it is worth noting that the commission also reported hearing allegations of child sexual abuse associated with religious institutions more than any other type of institution.
These institutions sanctioned, facilitated and covered up the torture of young vulnerable children. The commission found that sexual abuse occurred in religious schools, orphanages, missions, churches, confessionals and various other settings, and that in many cases religious leaders knew of the allegations but failed to take effective action, often opting for in-house responses. It is time to acknowledge the dangers in allowing religious institutions to be treated above the law by granting them exemptions to treat people differently. In the past, churches have used their political influence to cover up horrific abuse and the torture of children, yet these same churches continue to have massive influence on decision-makers despite the rapid growth in Australia of those who identify as having no religion.
With advocacy groups and those who have been campaigning for justice, I have had some exposure to the challenges of dealing with those religious organisations. It is telling that at the time of the royal commission when this horrific treatment came to light, many churches spent their public energy trying to stop laws preventing two people in love from being able to marry. Indeed, religious organisations spent millions of parishioner's dollars in campaigns to target young trans children and the children of same-sex parents. We must question how much religious organisations have learnt. They have gone from the physical, the emotional and the sexual abuse to what we saw them engage in last year that can only be described as the emotional torture of vulnerable young people.
It is worth reminding the House that many of the survivors the commission heard from were children from families that churches worried about and sought to remove just because they were of mixed race or single parented. Churches that were busy stopping a loving person from being able to marry their partner before they died would have been better off spending their time, energy and money dealing with the long-term hurt they caused people over decades. The Catholic Church continues to fight for exemptions to reporting information about risks to children heard in confession.
I commend the commission for its outstanding work. Implementing its recommendations will help survivors heal and improve safety in institutions. I congratulate the New South Wales Government on signing up early to the National Redress Scheme and committing to most recommendations for legal system improvements. I look forward to its response to the other recommendations. Most importantly, I praise the amazing advocacy and work of the many survivors who pushed hard for a royal commission so that people who had been silenced for decades were finally given the opportunity to be heard. Their fight for justice is truly inspiring and has been integral in making Australia a safer place for children.
I commend the bill.