Child Sex Abuse – An International Problem
24th Mar 2016
Over the last decade, the issue of child sex abuse, and the barriers to justice for survivors or child abuse, are finally being dealt with by governments and institutions throughout the Western world.
Currently there are four major government inquiries being held in English-speaking countries:
- Australia Royal Commission into Child Abuse[i]
- England Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse(IICSA)[ii]
- Northern Ireland Historical Abuse Inquiry (HIA)[iii]
- Scotland Child Abuse Inquiry[iv]
Queensland[v], South Australia[vi] and Victoria[vii] have also held government inquiries into child abuse, while other Australian states have had a series of departmental and ombudsman investigations into child sex abuse issues.
We are also seeing smaller, discrete inquiries which deal with specific individuals and/or sections of organisations where there have been child abuse issues, such as the widely criticised Jimmy Saville/BBC inquiry in the UK[viii] and the Grand Jury report into child sex abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese in Pennsylvania.[ix]
At the same time, a number of countries have had or currently have redress schemes that operate to compensate victims of child sex abuse, including the following:
- Canada – 2 billion dollar fund established in 2006 to compensate an estimated 80,000 victims of indigenous background who were forcibly removed and placed in care[x]
- Republic of Ireland – established the Residential Redress Board to compensate victims of abuse in care, which allowed for payments of up to 300,000 euro[xi]
- New Zealand – established a redress scheme in 2004, which allows for an average payment of $20,000[xii]
The number of inquiries and redress schemes in this area of child sex abuse reflects society’s inability to deal with child abuse complaints as part of the normal justice system. This is partly because the delay in coming forward, common in child abuse cases, creates unique difficulties for the criminal justice system and our civil laws. In addition, evidence before the Royal Commission has demonstrated that children are at risk in particular of sexual exploitation in institutional settings. And, for cultural and religious reasons, organisations find dealing with child abuse allegations extraordinarily difficult. Generally, child sex abuse has been a taboo subject. Certainly the normal rules and responses that appear to apply to other crimes in institutional settings, such as theft or physical assault, are almost inevitably side-stepped in child abuse cases.
The Royal Commission and other government inquiries have already resulted in a number of changes that will assist victims and help deal with the perpetrators. In Victoria, these changes include:
- New grooming laws, which prohibit grooming of both children and their parents;
- New offences for people who hold positions of authority and fail to protect children, or where they know a member of their organisation poses a risk to children or where there is a failure to report known or suspected child abuse to the police;
- The effective abolition of the statute of limitations in child abuse cases; and
- The establishment of the SANO taskforce which is a specialist police unit to deal with historical institutional abuse.
In addition, the Victorian government has committed to implementing all of the recommendations of the Betrayal of Trust, which include the establishment of a redress scheme for victims of institutional abuse and legislative reform to establish legal entities that can be sued within religious institutions (dealing with the ‘Ellis’ defence[xiii]).
In terms of the latter, some religious institutions are already taking steps to provide victims of abuse with entities that can be sued. For example, Bishop Bird of the Ballarat Diocese of the Catholic Church has agreed to be sued by victims of abuse. That is - he has volunteered himself as a defendant[xiv] - and the Anglican Church in Victoria is in the process of incorporating its diocese.[xv]
Laudable as these efforts are, Bishop Bird’s position relies on his continued presence in the position and/or his diocese ‘goodwill’. The Anglican Church’s efforts will arguably apply only to victims of abuse post-incorporation. In other words, there is still a pressing need for legislation to ensure that there are legal entities, with assets, which can be sued in historical abuse claims.
Finally, and most importantly for all victims of institutional abuse, the Royal Commission’s recommendations on Redress and Civil Litigation[xvi] must be implemented in their entirety, as must changes to the criminal law, with a view to ensuring that perpetrators, and those who shielded them, can finally be brought to justice.
Angela Sdrinis is a personal injuries accredited specialist and the director of Angela Sdrinis Legal, a specialist institutional abuse practise. Angela has represented victims appearing before the Royal Commission into Child Abuse, is a member of the Board of the In Good Faith Foundation which supports victims of clergy abuse and has been called to give evidence before the Senate in the Forgotten Australians Inquiry and the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry which resulted in the Betrayal of Trust Report.
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).
[xii] http://newzealandchildabuse.com/msd-contemporary-claims-process-1993-2007/ & https://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/contact-us/complaints/cyf-historic-claims.html