Over the last five years, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has uncovered a lingering legacy of abuse in our schools, sports clubs, foster homes, churches, orphanages, detention centres, hospitals, and more. Children in Australia have been preyed upon, manipulated and exploited in every type of public institution in which they deserved to be safe and protected.

This Friday, 15 December, the Royal Commission is expected to release its findings and recommendations following 57 public hearings, the evidence of 1200 witnesses, and over 8000 private meetings with survivors of child sexual abuse.

But we must not make the grievous error of viewing this report as a sign that child sexual abuse is no longer a problem in Australia - we cannot close the door on the issue of child sexual abuse unless we can be sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the abuse of children is not continuing behind closed doors in our homes and in our institutions.

The crime we are dealing with is the violation of a child. Sexual abuse involves a profound and intrusive invasion of a child’s body and mind. It strips a child of their capacity to trust. It interferes with a child’s developing ability to assess their own value as a human being, their understanding of healthy relationships, and their right to discover their sexuality in their own time and on their own terms.

It is one of the most vile and destructive acts that can be done to a child, causing the protective walls of security that should shield a child’s development to crumble around them. For many children, with the devastating weight of what has been done to them bearing down upon their small shoulders, these walls are impossible to rebuild.

Recalling his experiences of child sexual abuse, survivor AVB told the Royal Commission in 2015, “I don’t want to be marked or blemished by something that was done against me. That’s the problem with sexual assault. It’s robbing something of somebody and robbing their right to control their body and control their life. That can never be restored, no matter how many times you say sorry."
“I feel like my soul has been taken away.”
The responses of different institutions across Australia when confronted with suspicions, allegations and sometimes clear proof of child sexual abuse, have been the same.

Children who were abused were silenced and dismissed. Children who questioned what was happening to them were told that this was normal human behaviour, that sexual abuse was a sign of love and they were special to receive it, or that they deserved what they got. Children were accused of telling lies when they had the courage, well beyond their years, to speak out about the wrongs that were committed against them.
Some children who spoke out about abuse were then abused further. Others who were desperate to speak out instead buried the shame, confusion, hurt and betrayal so deep inside that they became lost in the darkness that formed within them.

These institutions made the catastrophic mistake of excusing inexcusable behavior. They made every effort to conceal and cover up the crime of child sexual abuse taking place within their walls. Serious and repeated allegations of abuse were not reported to the police, and many perpetrators of abuse were allowed to remain in positions where they had access to children for years and sometimes decades. Institutions made calculated and conscious decisions to move or transfer abusers to different locations, where they were welcomed by new communities who were unaware that they had accepted a perpetrator within their midst.

In taking these actions, Australia’s institutions sacrificed the safety of children for the sake of protecting their reputations and avoiding scandal in the eyes of the public. By doing so, they failed to protect the children and young people trusted into their care.

The Royal Commission has illuminated what was once hidden. It is now time to address what has come to light. We must face the unacceptable reality that children in Australia continue to experience sexual abuse. And the safety of Australia’s children is everyone’s responsibility.

The Australian Government must implement the Royal Commission’s recommendations. It must develop national processes to create safer environments for children across Australia.

Let’s not forget that in 1990, Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, committing itself to ensuring that children are properly cared for, are protected from violence, abuse and neglect, and that every child in Australia has a fair chance of reaching their full potential.

It means that all institutions in Australia must address the conditions that create opportunities for child sexual abuse. Institutions must constantly review their processes so that the safety of children is a priority that guides how they operate. And they must make sure that abuse is identified, reported, and responded to appropriately. It means systems-level reform where our existing structures have proven to be unsafe for children, including in our child protection system, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are grossly overrepresented.
This is not a time for accusations that certain institutions have been unfairly targeted by the Royal Commission’s inquiry. Instead of focusing on reputation, focus on the child. Creating safer environments for children will look after the institution’s reputation.

And as siblings, parents and community members, each of us has a protective role to play. We must create environments where children feel comfortable and supported to speak out about sexual abuse or situations in which they have felt threatened or unsafe. We must listen to children in all the ways in which they communicate, including changes in their body language, behaviour, and temperament. And we must fiercely hold our governments and our institutions accountable for their commitment to the safety and protection of Australia’s children.

To change the past, we must confront the past. To change the future, we must do all that we can in the present to eradicate the failed responses of the past.

The least we can do is acknowledge the wrongs that have been done. The best we can do is to make sure that they never happen again. Our children deserve the best.

This article was published in The Australian on Friday 15 December 2017.