A Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual assault

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A Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual assault

Posted 20/11/2012 by Janet Phillips

General awareness of the levels and different forms of child abuse and assault has heightened in recent years. In response to growing levels of concern, on 12 November 2012, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced the Government’s intention to establish a Royal Commission specifically examining ‘institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia’. The terms of reference are yet to be determined, but the recently released consultation paper states that the Royal Commission will be asked to identify what can be done to prevent child abuse in the future, and where it does occur, that organisational responses are just and supportive of survivors. The paper also acknowledges that the inquiry will be complex and lengthy.


Over the years a number of community groups and institutions have increasingly come under the spotlight for their responses to past and present abuses of children in their care. One of the latest, the Victorian Government’s Handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations inquiry (established in April 2012), has further intensified support for a broader national inquiry into child abuse and child sexual assault.

There have been several other significant state and territory based inquiries on child abuse or sexual assault in the past, including the Queensland Government’s Abuse of children in Queensland institutions (Forde) inquiry in 1999; and the South Australian Government’s Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry: allegations of sexual abuse and death from criminal conduct (Mullighan) inquiry in 2008.

There have also been two key Australian Parliamentary inquiries directly related to the treatment of children in institutional care—the Inquiry into children in institutional care (known as the ‘Forgotten Australians’) and the Inquiry into child migration. These inquiries resulted in several major reports documenting widespread abuse of children in institutional care:

For background on these and other related inquiries in the past see the Parliamentary Library publications'Forgotten Australians' and 'Lost Innocents': child migrants and children in institutional care in Australia; and Child abuse and protection in Australia.


In addition to calls for a national inquiry, many victims and other stakeholders lobbied for a national apology for many years. All of the Parliamentary inquiry reports also recommended that the Government offer a formal apology to children who had suffered hurt, distress, abuse or assault in institutional care. In response, on 16 November 2009, the Prime Minister delivered a National apology to child migrants and children abused in institutional care in the Great Hall of Parliament House.

The states and territories have also offered apologies to children who suffered abuse under their care, as have many religious institutions in Australia. Key apologies from government and religious organisations are outlined in chapter two of Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians revisited.

What is the situation today? 
Reports of high levels of child abuse and neglect experienced by some of Australia’s most vulnerable children are still very much with us today and continue to prompt concerns from many quarters.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) data shows that emotional abuse (36 per cent) and child neglect (29 per cent) are the most common forms of substantiated child abuse, followed by physical abuse (22 per cent) and lastly, sexual abuse (13 per cent).

While most instances of abuse and neglect are perpetrated by family members or care givers, research shows that child sexual assault is often perpetrated by a wider group of people that can include parents, relatives, friends, siblings and others known to the child such as a sports coach, priest or teacher.

The latest AIHW publication, Child Protection Australia 2010–11, noted that there were 163 767 child protection notifications and 31 527 substantiations in 2010–11. Since 2009–10, the number of children on care and protection orders had increased by 4 per cent from 37 730 to 39 058; and the number of children placed in out-of-home care had increased by 5 per cent to 37 648 in 2011.

The majority of children in out-of-home care are no longer housed in institutions, but are placed with foster carers or relatives— In 2011, 93 per cent of children in out-of-home care were accommodated in home-based arrangements—45 per cent in foster care, 46 per cent in relative/kinship care and 2.5 per cent in other types of home-based care.

Government response

The Australian Government’s National framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009–2020 acknowledges that child abuse and neglect rates both within the home and in out-of-home care have ‘more than doubled over the past 10 years and the number of children subject to child abuse and neglect remains unacceptably high’. The latest National plan to reduce violence against women and their children 2010–2022 sets out a framework for action over a twelve year period across all jurisdictions in Australia. The Plan aims to better coordinate the efforts of state and federal governments and hopes to ‘make a real and sustained reduction’ in the levels of violence against women and children.

Some maintain that, although there are children’s commissioners or guardians in all states and territories, until an independent commissioner for children is established to oversee children’s welfare, protection and care nationally; significant disparities in the treatment of children will remain. In 2012, the Government announced and legislated for the position of a National Children’s Commissioner to be created within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

It remains to be seen how effective implementation of the Plan and the establishment of a National Children’s Commissioner will have on reducing the levels of abuse experienced by some of Australia’s more vulnerable children in the future. However, it is likely the Royal Commission’s expected focus on organisational responses will form a valuable adjunct to the Commissioner’s role.


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