Why we must pay attention to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

Pauline Dixon is an Executive Manager in a Not-For-Profit agency working with families andChildren in WA. She attends St Matthew's Shenton Park. 

Over the last two years Australia has been subject to a gradual awakening of what makes up part of our history, a history that has until now, remained out of the public realm. News items depicting courageous abuse survivors of major institutions involved in the public hearings have shaken the community, the church and those who work with families and children. The public hearings are only one part of the work of the Royal Commission, with survivors having the option of private hearings. As of 1st of October, 2016, the Royal Commission has received 34,863 calls, 19,848 letters and emails, 5,961 private sessions and has made 1,703 referrals to authorities including the police.

The commissioners have made a number of key note presentations at conferences during this time and even for those who work in the field and are aware of the consequences of abuse, the stories have been harrowing. Case studies paint a picture of vulnerable children and the breach of trust by adults who should have been caring for them. They tell complicated stories that unfortunately implicate many of our churches and people in authority who either were active abusers or could have managed the disclosures differently. The work of the Royal Commission is ongoing. Although many of the stories happened in the previous century when there was a different understanding of children, much of what has been learned is applicable today. We ignore it at our peril.

As a Social Worker who started my career in Child Protection and has worked with families and children for 27 years, the work of the Royal Commission is a welcome development in our responsibility towards children in the community, particularly those who are vulnerable and whose voices have been ignored. Despite my affinity with the subject, I have been surprised at the extent of the abuse, the misuse of power and the nature of our institutions that have failed to protect children or act when it was clear that something was wrong.

My own motivation to become a social worker and commence my career in Child Protection was not clear at the time I made the decision to follow this path. On reflection I am aware that things I noticed and made me uncomfortable were actually signals of something that should not have been allowed to happen. There was a paedophile in our local community, he preyed on the children at our church and they disclosed to me. As a fourteen year old I was not equipped to know what to do; however, I listened, believed and reported what I had been told, key features of what needs to occur when abuse is present in a community. There were not the systems and processes available that there are today and I’m sure this experience helped propel me into my chosen career path.

The secrecy and denial around abuse has an ongoing traumatic effect on survivors. This is a major reason why we must pay attention to the work and findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We cannot pretend it hasn’t happened and unless we work to make our institutions safer for children, it will continue to occur. Sexual abuse still happens today and we can learn from the extensive work of the Royal Commission. They are doing much more than simply listening to the stories and confronting those who should have known better. They are conducting crucial pieces of research to establish new ways of working that will ensure the abuse of the past, never takes place again. They are uncovering many layers of the misuse of power by the perpetrators and the many people around them who either didn’t believe the children concerned or whose interests were served by covering it up.

It is helpful to understand sexual abuse as a process rather than an event as this recognises the complex dynamics that allow abuse to occur. Finklehor (1984) suggests that there are four preconditions which must be met before sexual abuse can occur:

  1. A potential offender (needs) to have some motivation to abuse a child sexually
  2. The potential offender (has) to overcome internal inhibitors against acting on the motivation
  3. The potential offender (has) to overcome external impediments to committing sexual abuse
  4. The potential offender or some other factor (has) to undermine or overcome a child’s possible resistance to the sexual abuse

Confronting as these preconditions are, it is clear that many stories domain from the Royal Commission, particularly those covered up on the news, are of vulnerable children who were preyed upon by those highly motivated to abuse. Institutional structures were not enough of an external impediment to those determined to commit abuse. At a conference I attended last year I heard the story of a social worker who had been placed in a church run boy’s home as part of his educational placement in the early 1980s. The home was ruled by harsh corporal punishment and the dominance of the physically aggressive older boys. The way the institution was run allowed the older boys to prey on the younger boys, and the gentle student on placement was no match for them. The reasons for the ongoing nature of abuse are complex and there are many who worked in places where they knew things were not okay but they were as powerless as the children to do anything about it.

The Royal Commission has commissioned a number of pieces of research as part of its terms of reference. One such piece has been an inquiry into what institutions and governments should do to better protect children against sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts. Although many institutions have been working on improving their protection of children, the Royal Commission has a role in future planning.

According to the Royal Commission’s website it has:

identified the elements of a child safe institution, tested the elements with feedback obtained from a panel of 40 Australian and international independent experts, including academics, children’s commissioners and guardians, regulators and other child safe industry experts and practitioners… As part of the final report there will be a volume dedicated to making institutions child safe with a number of recommendations on ways which children can be better protected through: implementing the child safe elements, building the capacity of institutions and holding institutions to account through independent oversight and monitoring.

It also outlines the elements of a Child Safe Institution:

  1. Child Safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture
  2. Children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously
  3. Family and communities are informed and involved
  4. Equity is promoted and diversity respected
  5. People working with children are suitable and supported
  6. Processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child focussed
  7. Staff are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children safe through continual education and training
  8. Physical and online environments minimise the opportunity for abuse to occur
  9. Implementation of child safe standards is continuously reviewed and improved
  10. Policies and procedures documents how the institution is child safe

Although the work of the Royal Commission is underpinned by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as Christians we have a higher authority in the bible, the word of God. The picture that is presented in the gospels of the relationship that Jesus had with children is a model for us in how we need to teach, cherish and respect children. One example is found in the Gospel of Matthew 19: 14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”. In the Gospel of Mark there is a picture of Jesus overcoming the religious and cultural obstacles to embracing children’s full and equal participation in the gospel. Bunge (2008) highlights that in the Gospel of Luke children play a prominent and important role. In Luke 9: 46-48 and 18: 15-17 Jesus points his disciples to children as exemplars of God’s work in the world and affirms that hospitality toward children reflects one’s attitude toward God. There are many other verses that exhort parents to teach and care for their children, enabling them to grow in their knowledge and understanding of their Father in heaven and of his son our Lord Jesus. The history of what has happened in many religious institutions has hindered and harmed children. Child sexual abuse survivors recount how the abuse suffered at the hands of representatives of the church has severely affected their relationship with God and the church, for their entire lives.

We are given the greatest responsibility when parents entrust their children to the programs run in our churches. It is incumbent on us to ensure that all who come in contact with children are safe to do so. We have an enormous job in rebuilding trust with survivors and with the broader community who are learning the sad and awful truth of the abuse of trust through the open sessions of the Royal Commission. There will be far and long reaching consequences for the place of the church in our community. It has been experienced across many denominations. We can only rebuild this trust by our individual practices within our local communities. We need to ensure that the kind of abuse that is coming to light never happens again. We need to pay attention to the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission and implement the suggested changes if we have not already done so. Current minimum standards such as Working with Children’s Check and National Police Clearance only pick up offences that have been through the court system; however, they do provide a deterrent to those who have been convicted. Educating and supporting our children’s workers and encouraging children to speak up if they are uncomfortable are foundational in building a safe children’s ministry. Developing a culture where children are respected and cherished and people know what to do when they are worried about a child are good ways to ensure that our children will remain safe.


Bunge, M (ed). (2008). The Child in the Bible. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Finklehor, D. (1984). Child sexual abuse: New theory & research. New York: The Free Press.