Bob Ellis on the child abuse Royal Commission

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When the Royal Commission comes to considering child abuse and who committed it — where do you draw the line, asks Bob Ellis.

I THOUGHT Leigh Sales was wrong to ask, repeatedly, Brendan O’Connor why not probe, exclusively, the Catholic Church; but Frank Brennan on Lateline three hours later convinced me she was probably right to do so.

For ‘institutional harm to children’ covers what happened in Woomera, Villawood and Nauru; in the Boy Scouts for a century; in the institutions exposed by the Stolen Children enquiry; in the Barnado Homes and the boys’ hostels and ‘reformatories’ and the adoption agencies that knowingly fostered infants into harm’s way; in the football teams, athletic clubs, dance classes and church choirs. It logically spreads to the affianced children of some Islamic traditionalists; of the Amish, the Scientologists, the breakaway Mormons, the Children of God and some Afghan, Aboriginal and Pitcairn Island cultures. It logically spreads to every sect or cult that threatens children with hellfire, including most Christian religions. It has to.

It covers, literally, a multitude of sins. When you consider the thirty years the Lindy Chamberlain case took to exculpate a mother and convict a dingo – and fail to name the long dead wild dog’s human accomplice – ten thousand cases of alleged, and denied, and hotly defended abuse of children might take, hereafter, quite a while.

This is not to say it shouldn’t be attempted, only to remark how huge and widespread it seems to be. If, as is alleged, incest touches a quarter of all families, and ‘abuse’ can also include bullying in boarding schools, playgrounds and bike sheds, then how many millions are in the dock?

Is competitive swimming child abuse? It is hard to see it in any other way. How about school bands? How about Mrs Carey’s Concert? Many lawyers will grow rich wrestling with these questions.

It should be limited, somehow, to sexual abuse, perhaps, and that level of bullying that brought on suicide, or suicide attempts. It gets harder whichever way you look at it.

What punishment, moreover, should it incur, given that no James Hardie executive did time for what some think serial, secret, unrepentant, ongoing manslaughter. Two years? Thirty? What punishment for those whose victims committed suicide? What if they were victims themselves? What if some were Indigenous? Where does it end?

This is the biggest and hairiest political decision since the boarding of the Tampa. And its results will rankle for centuries.

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