The past two years have seen significant changes in Victoria, with new laws designed to stop child sexual abuse and help survivors reclaim their power.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was powerful and devastating.
From January 2013 until December 2017, commissioners listened to more than 42,000 calls, read almost 26,000 letters and emails, held 8000 private sessions, made 2500 referrals to authorities and conducted 57 public hearings. It was an extensive and emotional process.
In the almost two years since it finished, Victoria has made significant legal steps to stop child sexual abuse in its tracks and help abuse survivors reclaim their power.
Those who bravely shared their stories as part of the landmark inquiry had a direct role in the critical legal reforms that the committee recommended.
Some 15,000 people came forward to share their stories. About 62 per cent of them reported abuse in faith-based institutions, while 27 per cent reported abuse in government-run institutions. Of the religious institutions, 40 per cent of cases occurred in the Catholic church, 8 per cent happened in the Anglican church and 4 per cent took place in Salvation Army institutions.
The Honourable Justice Peter McClellan AM, who chaired the royal commission, paid tribute to the “great courage and determination” that survivors demonstrated during the process.
“Most are stories of personal trauma and many are of personal tragedy. It is impossible not to share the anger many survivors have felt when they tell us of their betrayal by people they believed they were entitled to trust,” he said in his final sitting address.
“We also witnessed extraordinary determination and resilience. We spoke with many people who, with professional help and the support of others, have taken significant steps toward recovery.”
At present, Victoria is leading the way in implementing legal changes. It’s very important work, but there is a long way to go because the reforms are different in each state and territory around Australia.
One key change is a new offence for priests who fail to report allegations of abuse raised in religious confessions, which was a key recommendation from the royal commission.
“[It] will send a strong message to institutions and individuals that they must act quickly in responding to and addressing complaints of abuse,” says Dimi Ioannou, head of abuse law at Maurice Blackburn in Victoria.
“Sadly, we have seen such measures fiercely resisted by the Catholic Church. Such a position is untenable - no institution or organisation is above the law and we know from the royal commission that failure to report abuse and to act on complaints was a key issue in allowing systemic abuse to occur, sometimes for decades.
“This is particularly important given there are already a number of other professions who are obliged to report instances of abuse and there is no excuse for the Catholic Church to not be held to these same standards in ensuring that the safety of children is made a priority."
Another key change is lifting the deeds of release that many survivors signed, forcing them to accept inadequate monetary settlements and waiving their rights to future civil law claims.
Over the years, many survivors had little choice but to accept offers of compensation that were harshly minimised in favour of churches and institutions, without proper advice about their legal rights.
However, recent reforms have taken a significant step towards addressing this by allowing people who were forced to accept inadequate settlements to be compensated appropriately via civil litigation avenues.
Victoria has also led the nation in removing the Ellis defence, which applied when plaintiffs commenced claims against unincorporated non-government organisations - basically, it prevented them from being sued as they had no “legal identity”. A new piece of legislation passed last year made this excuse redundant.
Ms Ioannou says there are a number of steps survivors can consider to take action, including reporting the matter to police and seeking help from a counselling service or law firm.
It may be possible to make an application for redress - that is, compensation - if the institution in question has opted-in to the national redress scheme. However, it’s also possible to pursue civil law claims.
“Our Victorian abuse law practice is pursuing a lot of civil litigation against members of the Catholic church and other institutions. We’re receiving inquiries on a daily basis,” she tells the Herald Sun.
“I work in this area because I’m committed to supporting survivors of abuse. Children are the most vulnerable individuals and it’s important that we protect them. One thing I always say to my clients is while taking legal action can never erase what has happened, many survivors see it as an acknowledgment of the profound wrongs committed against them, and a means of holding the institution to account”.