The disappointing Child Abuse Royal Commission

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Child abuse victim and whistleblower Fiona Barnett reluctantly agrees the Royal Commission should have further funding, though she is unimpressed with its progress so far.

EARLIER THIS WEEK, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Commission) released its interim report.

As a victim and whistleblower that provided witness testimony to the Commission regarding high-end paedophile ring activities, I am unimpressed with the content of the report and with my personal interaction with the Commission.

I attended one of the early private hearings in Brisbane.

During this, I asked the Commissioners whether they felt overwhelmed with their task and by the number of victim responses they had received so far, and they unanimously sighed "Yes"

 The interim report raises issues around funding, a need for more time and the Commission’s inability to satisfy the unexpected demand for witness testimony. These questions brought to my mind the Australian government’s recent announcement of their intention to spend $24 billion on a new fleet of 58 fighter jets to defend this nation from external sources of potential future threat. Meanwhile, our country is being destroyed from within by (according to the interim report) by an established source of threat.

For the price of a couple of planes, the Commission and the police could properly investigate every Australian who has been invaded.

I requested the Commission investigate my complaints.

During a heated debate with Judge Jennifer Coate, in which she initially avoided my questions, I asked:

“Do you have the power and authority to investigate my complaints?”

A bemused Judge Coates coolly responded, yes.

Then I asked:

“Is it within your terms of reference to make recommendations based on your investigations?”

She answered yes again.

To which I replied:

“Right, I’m holding you to that — investigate my complaints!”

Commissioner Helen Milroy kindly informed me, when referring to the large folder of supporting evidence I gave them:

“Fiona, first we have to read that.”

My husband and I were highly impressed with Milroy’s demonstrated support and empathy.

Upon my exit, Judge Coate shook my hand so firmly, I was reminded of the western ritual where men shake hands to establish dominance. I looked her in the eye and returned her grip with enough strength to make my point without committing an offence.

My husband who was present at my private hearing requested the Commission arrange for some kind of witness protection for our family who had reported threats to the police. The Commission promised to immediately follow up on this request, including contacting me at a near date.

I did not find the private hearing cathartic. I moved from that meeting directly to a Commission appointed counselling session, during which I broke down in tears  and disappointment at the realisation that the traumatic two-and-a-half hour meeting I had just endured would likely amount to nothing.

 One year after I testified before the Commission, I remain disappointed with their failure to follow through with any of my requests or their promises.

The Commission has not investigated my complaints, including new information and a list of further victims I forwarded to them. One of the alleged offenders, a local teacher who was banned from teaching in NSW in 2006, was last year found working in a Gold Coast state school. To date, I do not know whether the Commission even forwarded my evidence regarding this to the police.

While I don’t regret testifying to the Commission, in that I fulfilled a moral obligation, I do regret the negative consequences my decision attracted. The Commission never offered me witness protection and subsequently my family and associates have been threatened on several occasions. I photographed thugs following me to my child’s school. My NSW Victims of Crime appointed counsellor made a formal police statement regarding the threats she received while working with me.

To further illustrate the Royal Commission’s impotence, in the middle of the Royal Commission hearings, NSW Victims of Crime legislation was changed to reduce the amount of compensation and support child abuse victims may access.

A victim is entitled to one $10,000 payout plus 22 counselling sessions per act of violence that they experienced as a child. The catch is, if the victim was abused a thousand times during a 10 year period at different locations by different people, it is at the government’s discretion to decide whether the many incidents are in some way linked, and if a vague connection can be found, the thousand abuse experiences are legally clustered together and defined as a single act of violence.

Victims typically need years of therapy from a quality counsellor at a cost of over $10,000 per annum.

I have read the Royal Commission’s interim report, which confirms my previously published suspicions — that the RC is following the example of a similar Irish investigation by taking a superficial sampling approach to the task.

Such an approach may save money, but it simultaneously serves to protect the numerous perpetrators such as teacher Gary Willis, whose crimes will remain hidden from our community until a comprehensive public investigation is conducted.

Together the selection of case studies presented within the interim report present a sanitised picture of the nature, prevalence and severity of child sexual abuse in Australia. The report fails to inform the public about the existence of well organised paedophile rings, reaching to the highest levels of society, that numerous victims and whistleblowers reported to the Royal Commission.

 I know a number of abuse victims who did not bother reporting to the Commission because they anticipated that their efforts would be a waste of time and trauma, and that the Commission was giving victims a false sense of hope in justice somehow being served.

These sceptics fears appear to have been justified. The first thing that the Commission told me at my private hearing was that they are not here to act for current abuse victims, but to do something for future victims.

It was at that point I realised the Commission was royal whitewash.

Current victims of child sexual abuse are the future! I believe that the Royal Commission should investigate every single complaint of child abuse, no matter what the cost. What monetary value could any of us place on the life of a child abuse victim?

As a victim and whistleblower I have no choice but to support the notion of a well funded and empowered Royal Commission into child abuse, however my major concern at this point is that the present Commission has failed to use its existing powers effectively.

If, as they stated to my husband and I, the Commission has no plans to do anything for current victims, other than produce another report, then this is a betrayal of these current victims who have suffered and seek action and closure.

At the end of this expensive exercise, I expect a lot of people will be standing around patting each other on the back, saying:

"We did it, we had a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse!"

But then what?

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