Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

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Institutional child sexual abuse in Australia
Inquiries Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
Commissioners The Honourable Justice Peter McClellan AM (Chief)
Bob Atkinson AO APM
The Honourable Justice Jennifer Coate
Robert Fitzgerald AM
Dr Helen Milroy
Andrew Murray
Inquiry period 13 January 2013 (2013-01-13)present
Constituting instrument Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth)

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is a royal commission established in 2013 by the Australian government pursuant to the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Commonwealth) to inquire into and report upon responses by institutions to instances and allegations of child abuse in Australia. The establishment of the commission followed revelations of child abusers being moved from place to place instead of their abuse and crimes being reported. There were also revelations that adults failed to try to stop further acts of child abuse.[1] The commission will examine the history of abuse in educational institutions, religious groups, sporting organisations, state institutions and youth organisations.


During the late 1990s and early 2000s, allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia surfaced in the Roman Catholic Church and a number of other religious and non-religious institutions. Some of these allegations led to a number of convictions, trials and ongoing investigations into allegations of sex crimes committed by Roman Catholic priests and members of religious orders.[2] Some of the allegations relate to alleged incidents that occurred during the 1950s, others in more recent times. There were calls for a Royal Commission since the late 1990s.[3]

Similar allegations against the Roman Catholic Church had occurred in the United States, Ireland, Canada, Belgium, and several other European countries. In Ireland, the Government Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was established in 2000 and presented its final report to the Dáil in 2009, covering allegations of child abuse from 1936 onwards.[4]

A 1996 parliamentary inquiry in Western Australia attempted to review the extent of abuse, including sexual abuse, of children in state care; however it realised that the scope of the task was too big.[5] In South Australia there were allegations that the state government was not accurately reporting the numbers of children being sexually abused in remote parts of the state.[6] In Queensland, during 1999 the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions (headed by Leneen Forde, a former Governor of Queensland), investigated the treatment of children in 159 licensed government and non-government institutions from 1911 to 1999. In its report, the Inquiry found that abuse had occurred and made 42 recommendations relating to contemporary child protection practices, youth justice and redress of past abuse.[7]

In Victoria, in January 2011 the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry was launched to investigate Victoria's child protection system and make recommendations to strengthen and improve the protection and support of vulnerable young people.[8] The inquiry was chaired by a former Supreme Court Justice, the Hon Phillip Cummins, and reported in January 2012. The report considered the issue of the sexual and other abuse of children by personnel in religious organisations and recommended that a formal investigation should be conducted into the processes by which religious organisations respond to the criminal abuse of children by personnel in their organisation.[9] A bi-partisan parliamentary inquiry was established in May 2012 in that state to seek information about the causes and effects of criminal abuse within religious and other non-government organisations; whether victims were discouraged from reporting such abuse; if such abuse was reported, how the reporting of their experience of abuse was handled; the consequences of abuse, including the effect on the victims and others, and the consequences for the perpetrator(s); the adequacy of the policies, procedures and practices within religious and other non-government organisations that relate to the prevention of, and response to, child abuse; and suggestions for reform, to help prevent abuse and ensure that allegations of abuse are properly dealt with.[9] During its proceedings it heard from a police report that detailed 40 suicide deaths directly related to abuse by Roman Catholic clergy.[10] In October 2012, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Ken Lay, in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry, recommended that some of the Roman Catholic Church's actions to hinder investigations (including dissuading victims from reporting to police, failing to engage with police and alerting suspects of allegations against them) be criminalised.[11]

By June 2012, there was community and academic pressure for the establishment of a Royal Commission, most especially in Victoria.[12][13][14][15]

Meanwhile, in New South Wales, a bishop in the Maitland-Newcastle diocese of the Roman Catholic Church supported some form of public inquiry into the issue.[16] In November 2012, a senior officer of the NSW Police revealed that he was stood down from his investigation while he was compiling "explosive" evidence from a key witness and that ".....the church covers up, silences victims, hinders police investigations, alerts offenders, destroys evidence and moves priests to protect the good name of the church".[17] On 9 November 2012, the Premier of New South Wales, Barry O'Farrell, announced the appointment of a Special Commission of Inquiry into allegations raised about police handling of abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church in the Hunter region. The commission is headed by Margaret Cunneen SC.[18]

On 12 November 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that she would be recommending to the Governor-General the creation of a Royal Commission.[1][3][19] On 19 November 2012, federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and Acting Minister for Families Brendan O'Connor[20] released a consultation paper seeking input into the commission's scope of the terms of reference, how the Commonwealth and the states and territories will work together, the number of commissioners and suggested areas of expertise, the proposed timetable and reporting requirements.[21]

Archbishop Hart, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, stated that he welcomed and promised co-operation with a Royal Commission to broadly investigate child sexual abuse in institutions across Australia. George Pell, Cardinal-Archbishop of Sydney, stated that he hoped the Royal Commission will stop a "smear campaign" against the Catholic Church.[22] During a press conference held on 13 November 2012, Cardinal Pell voiced his support for the Royal Commission and welcomed the opportunity to help victims, to clear the air and to separate fact from fiction.[23]

Terms of Reference[edit]

On 11 January 2013, Governor-General Quentin Bryce issued Commonwealth Letters Patent appointing six commissioners and the commission's terms of reference. The commissioners were directed " inquire into institutional responses to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse and related matters ..."[24]

Each State was also requested to issue Letters Patent, or their equivalent Instruments of Appointment, that allow the six commissioners to conduct an inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse under their respective laws. The Commissioners were formally appointed under Western Australian law on 22 January 2013, Queensland law on 24 January 2013, New South Wales law on 25 January 2013, Victorian law on 12 February 2013, Tasmanian law on 4 March 2013 and South Australian law on 7 March 2013.[24] Despite both the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory having their own governments, they are officially administered under the Commonwealth of Australia, and the Commonwealth Letters Patent covered their jurisdiction.

Commissioners and executive[edit]

On the same day, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the setting up of the Royal Commission and the appointment of six commissioners with The Honourable Justice Peter McClellan AM as its head. The six commissioners were:[24]

The setting up of the Royal Commission was supported by the Opposition leader Tony Abbott and by the Greens, as were the terms of reference and the choice of commissioners.[26][27]

The inaugural Chief Executive Officer was Janette Dines, who served from January 2013 until June 2014.[28][29]


The powers of Royal Commissions in Australia are set out in the enabling legislation, the Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth).

Royal Commissions, appointed pursuant to the Royal Commissions Act or otherwise, have powers to issue a summons to a person to appear before the Commission at a hearing to give evidence or to produce documents specified in the summons; require witnesses to take an oath or give an affirmation; and require a person to deliver documents to the Commission at a specified place and time.[30] A person served with a summons or a notice to produce documents must comply with that requirement, or face prosecution for an offence. The penalty for conviction upon such an offence is a fine of A$1,000 or six months imprisonment.[31] A Royal Commission may authorise the Australian Federal Police to execute search warrants.[32]


The Commissioners invited members of the public to make submissions, either orally over the telephone, in writing, or via face-to-face meetings with a commission officer. To help people planning to give evidence, in July 2013 the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus QC announced provision of a free national legal service, independent of the Royal Commission, by the National Association of Community Legal Centres.[33] Witnesses were offered the opportunity to tell their story to the Royal Commission via either public hearings or in private.[34]

The Commissioners identified a number of themes and invited members of the public, organisations, and institutions to make submissions on each of the following issues:

Issue Close date
of submissions
# submissions
1 Working with Children Check 12 August 2013 79 [35]
2 Towards Healing 4 September 2013 23 [36]
3 Child Safe Institutions 11 October 2013 53 [37]
4 Sexual Abuse of Children in Out-of-Home Care 8 November 2013 62 [38]
5 Civil Litigation 17 March 2014 37 [39]
6 Redress schemes 2 June 2014

A large number of organisations and institutions made submissions to the Royal Commission including (but not limited to) the Anglican Church, Anglicare, Barnardos Australia, Bravehearts, Broken Rites, CREATE Foundation, Lutheran Church, MacKillop Family Services, Mission Australia, National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, National Disability Services, Save the Children Australia, Scouts Australia, The Smith Family, St Vincent de Paul Society, Surf Life Saving Australia, The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints, The Salvation Army, Uniting Church, and YMCA Australia. The Australian government and the governments of the ACT, NSW, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia made submissions. The list of government agencies that made submissions is extensive and includes the ACT Children & Young People Commissioner, Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority, Australian Federal Police, Australian Human Rights Commission, Australian Senate, Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian (Queensland), Commissioner for Children and Young People WA, Commissioner for Victim’s Rights SA, Legal Aid NSW, Legal Services Commission of South Australia, NSW Children’s Guardian, NSW Ombudsman, Queensland State Archives, Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care, Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, Victorian Commissioner for Children and Young People, and Victoria Legal Aid.[35][36][37][38][39]


Hearings were scheduled for every capital city (excluding Darwin) and a number of regional centres across Australia.

Scouts Australia[edit]

In the Hunter region of New South Wales, it was alleged that a former member of Scouts Australia, suspended from the organisation for abusing two Scouts in the 1990s, was employed as the chief executive officer of an Aboriginal child welfare agency two months prior to the formal introduction of working-with-children checks. In testimony before the commission in September 2013, it was revealed that the applicant's suitability for the role may have been assessed by relatively junior staff;[40] and that he later falsified his working-with-children check. It was alleged that the NSW Department of Community Services (DOCS) gave the man permission to have a 17-year-old boy, whom he was grooming for sex, live with him.[41] A former CEO of Scouts Australia testified that during his three years in the job, he dealt with ten allegations of child sexual abuse. He admitted a number of children were sexually abused or harmed and said the Scouts failed them. The commission heard testimony from two victims who spoke of the profound effect the sexual abuse had on their lives.[42]

The first published case study of the royal commission dealt with the response of institutions to the conduct of Steven Larkins who occupied positions of responsibility in Scouts Australia NSW and in the Hunter Aboriginal Children's Service. Larkins was prosecuted in 2012 for offences he had committed 15 years earlier, has been convicted, and is serving a prison sentence for his conduct.[43]

YMCA NSW[edit]

Between October 2013 and January 2014, the Commission heard evidence that there were systemic failures by management within YMCA NSW[44] after a worker was hired to work at a YMCA child care centre located in Caringbah in southern Sydney without the appropriate background checks.[45] The former worker, Jonathan Luke Lord, has since been convicted of offences relating to the abuse of twelve boys in his care, some as young as six.[46][47] On 18 January 2013 Lord was sentenced to 10 years, and a non parole period of 6 years. He was sentenced for 13 offences involving 12 children. Another 16 offences were taken into account.[48][49]

Following evidence presented before the Commission, the NSW Department of Education and Communities wrote to the Chief Executive Officer of YMCA NSW and issued a compliance notice that set out strict conditions for continuation of the YMCA's childcare licence.[46] The Chief Executive Officer of YMCA NSW testified before the Commission about the impact of crimes that occurred on YMCA NSW premises.[45]

(The perpetrator)... was an insidious and deceitful individual, who was grooming not only children and parents but the YMCA itself. He gained the trust of the children, the parents and the fellow staff members to really get close to these children. (He would) go so far as to open the childcare centre for a parent who had to start work early. (He) went above and beyond to help out parents. We've got staff who are struggling to comfort children that come to them distressed because it might be seen as grooming practices. So (his) impacts have been devastating.

— Phillip Hare, Chief Executive Officer of YMCA NSW; testimony given in 2013.

The Salvation Army[edit]

In January 2014 the Commission began investigating allegations of sexual and physical abuse of children at four boys' homes run by The Salvation Army. The homes examined by the Commission were the Bexley Boys Home in Sydney, the Gill Memorial Home at Goulburn in southern New South Wales, the Alkira Salvation Army Home for Boys at Indooroopilly in Brisbane and the Riverview Training Farm at Riverview in Queensland. The Commission heard testimony from two Salvation Army whistleblowers about allegations of child abuse between 1973 to 1975. The officers testified that they witnessed a boy had his arm dislocated during a beating by another Army officer. The Army banned the husband and wife whistleblowers from talking to other alleged victims of child abuse and dismissed them from their position as "house parents" at the Alkira home.[50] When the whistleblowers complained to the Queensland Department of Children's Services, they were labelled troublemakers.[51] The officer at the centre of the allegations had previously worked at the Bexley home from 1968; and then was the manager of the Alkira home between 1974 and 1976. The Salvation Army moved the alleged perpetrator to another Salvation Army service where he was promoted in rank.[52] Following the allegations raised at the Royal Commission, The Salvation Army suspended the officer at the centre of the allegations. The officer concerned did not attended the commission's hearings but the inquiry has been told he refutes the allegations of sexual abuse.[53] The inquiry heard that officers were moved interstate if they were accused of child sexual abuse. One officer was dismissed from the Army in 2005 due to allegations of child sexual abuse.[52] The whistleblowers testified that boys at the home were used for alleged sexual exploitation and were allegedly subject to physical abuse.[50]

"They were given drink and chocolates, well, they were used that day in Brisbane and the next day they were sent down to Sydney... (Another officer) told me the boys were useless and bad, and it had to be drummed into them that rules are rules."

— Major Cliff Randall, testimony from a Salvation Army whislteblower, 2014.

Witnesses who testified included alleged victims of child abuse. A male witness told the Royal Commission that while at the Gill Memorial Home at Goulburn, aged 12 years, he was regularly sexually abused by a Salvation Army officer.[54]

"....(I was abused)... at least four out of every seven days. Many times he would drag me out of bed at 3am for allegedly making a noise,.....He would punish me by taking me down to the bathrooms and making me scrub the toilets with a toothbrush. I was always there on my own. He would then sexually abuse me and send me back to bed at 5am. I would then have to get up at 6am to start my chores..... (He) flogged me when we got back for telling lies. He hit me with his open palm on my head, chest, arms and upper body."

— A victim of alleged child abuse at the Gill Memorial Home, Goulburn; testimony given in 2014.

Mangrove Yoga Ashram[edit]

In December 2014, the Commission hearing examined allegations into the Mangrove Yoga Ashram of Swami Satyananda Saraswati of child sexual abuse by the ashram’s former spiritual leader in the 1970s and 1980s.[55]

Knox Grammar School and Uniting Church[edit]

In February 2015 the Commission began hearings, starting on 23 February,[56] concerning the response of Knox Grammar School, and the Uniting Church, to complaints and criminal proceedings involving teachers who sexually abused students. The Commission will examine the 'systems, policies and procedures' involving the school's response to the complaints since 1970 and the experiences of former students sexually abused by teaching staff.[56] Four teachers from Knox have previously been convicted of sexual offences against Knox students.[57]

A former Knox teacher, a resident master at the schools boarding house in 1988, was summonsed to appear at the Commission, but failed to do so. A warrant was issued by the Commission for his arrest.[58]


The federal government requested an initial report from the commission not later than 30 June 2014 as well as a recommendation for the date for the final report not later than 31 December 2015.[24][26] On 13 November 2014 Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove amended the letters patent extending the date for submission of the final report to "not later than 15 December 2017."[59]

Interim report[edit]

The interim report released on 30 June 2014 included " the personal stories of 150 people who shared their experience of abuse by coming to a private session or providing a written account."[60]

Case-study reports[edit]

Individual reports have been published on institutional responses to the following issues:[61]
1. Conduct of Steven Larkins (Scouts)
2. Conduct of Jonathan Lord (YMCA NSW)
3. North Coast Children's Home (Anglican Diocese of Grafton)
4. Four survivors experiences with the [Catholic Church's] Towards Healing process.
6. Primary school and the Toowoomba Catholic Education Office response to the conduct of Gerard Byrnes.
7. Girls' institutions at Parramatta and Hay
8. Mr John Ellis’s experience of the Towards Healing process and civil litigation.
11. Christian Brothers' orphanages and schools in Western Australia
14. John Gerard Nestor (Catholic Diocese of Wollongong)


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  49. ^ YMCA NSW’s response to the conduct of Jonathan Lord (PDF) (1 ed.). Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. June 2014. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-925118-19-3. Retrieved 2 March 2015. On 18 January 2013, Lord was sentenced to 10 years in prison with a non‐parole period of 6 years. After plea bargaining, he was sentenced for 13 offences involving 12 children: 
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  53. ^ Oriti, Thomas (31 January 2014). "Salvation Army suspends officer John McIver over child sexual abuse royal commission". ABC News (Australia). Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  54. ^ Thrower, Louise (5 February 2014). "Royal Commission: Torture and rape at Gill Memorial". Goulburn Post. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  55. ^ Australian Associated Press.Yoga ashram didn't consider sex abuse a crime, royal commission told. Guardian Australia, 4 December 2014
  56. ^ a b "Case Study 23, February 2015, Sydney". Public Hearings, Child Abuse Royal Commission. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 23 February 2015. Retrieved 2 March 2015. The public hearing will inquire into the response of Knox Grammar School ... and the Uniting Church in Australia between 1970 and 2012 to concerns raised about inappropriate conduct by a number of teachers towards students at Knox Grammar School. 
  57. ^ Bibby, Paul (22 January 2015). "Royal Commission to publicly examine Sydney private school Knox Grammar over child sexual abuse". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 
  58. ^ Higgins, Ean. "Arrest warrant issued for former Knox teacher Christopher Fotis". The Australian (26 February 2015) (News Corp Australia). AAP. Retrieved 2 March 2015. In the wake of Mr Fotis’ failure to answer the summons issued on him by the Royal Commission, the Royal Commission has issued a warrant for his arrest,” Mr [David] Lloyd [counsel assisting the Royal Commission] 
  59. ^ Cosgrove, Sir Peter (13 November 2014). "Amendment to Letters Patent". Terms of Reference. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved 2 March 2015. ... amend Our Letters Patent to require you to submit to Our Governor-General a report of the results of your inquiry, and your recommendations, not later than 15 December 2017 
  60. ^ "Interim Report–released on 30 June 2014" (HTML+PDF appendices). About us-Our reports. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 30 June 2014. Retrieved 2 March 2015.  (PDF versions: Volume 1, ISBN 978-1-925118-26-1 (455 kB) & Volume 2, ISBN 978-1-925118-28-5 (209 kB))
  61. ^ "Case Study Reports" (html - N.b. Actual reports are in DOC and/or PDF formats). Public Hearing-Findings. Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved 20 December 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]