Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse

Program: 3AW, Neil Mitchell


NEIL MITCHELL: In a sense the Prime Minister has preempted the royal commission a little because she referred in her speech yesterday as the evil of people preying on children and the systemic failure – her words, “systemic failure to respond to it and to better protect children”, and she wanted to stop that type of systemic failure happening again.  Now that is preemptive a little bit.  It’s also spot on.  I mean it is patently obvious there has been a systemic failure deliberate or otherwise and probably a combination of both within the Catholic Church.  Other organisations I don’t know.  But certainly within the Catholic Church there has been a deliberate cover up at times, a systemic failure.

On the line the Acting Minister for Families in the Federal Government, Mr Brendan O’Connor. Good morning.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Good morning Neil.

NEIL MITCHELL: If I may just first – I just had a caller who is a victim and deeply upset and in tears about this.  He said he welcomes the inquiry but says this is going to reopen such pain for a lot of people.  Will you be able to build some sort of counselling support around the royal commission?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  I think that’s why it’s such a difficult decision for governments to make because in doing so you do know that you open up old wounds if you like, emotionally for victims and their families.  That’s something we must consider I think.  But there’s no doubt part of this process is therapeutic, allowing people to have their stories told Neil, allowing them to have their voices heard, their claims to be properly examined.  So for them to talk directly to someone who’s empowered to respond I think is ultimately – when you’re weighing up the pros and cons – is ultimately a good thing.

NEIL MITCHELL: Well that’s part of it but part of it is also to change the system and possibly –

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  More importantly, yes.

NEIL MITCHELL: Yeah, well the change and possibly even track down offenders isn’t it?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Of course.  I mean you invited me to talk about the victims and the dimension of how it’s important, but of course the central purpose of the royal commission will be to thoroughly examine the institutional failure to respond to child sex offences across the nation and that’s why the terms of reference are important while we’re consulting with victims’ groups, religious leaders, community organisations about the manner in which this should be conducted.

NEIL MITCHELL: Do you think we have any idea where this will go?  I mean it sounds as if the terms of reference won’t be restrictive, it’s not just the Catholic Church, it’s this sort of systemic problem anywhere.  Have we got any idea where – I mean people talk about police, judiciary, politicians, none of which is substantiated but these are the allegations that are around.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well, of course to the extent that when you create a royal commission the commission is obviously empowered pursuant to the terms of reference but largely they are in control of their own destiny and you can’t foresee where the commissions will ultimately go and that’s why these decisions are not taken lightly.  But I think that there’s sufficient evidence as you’ve just said, sufficient evidence to call for a commission inquiry and we need to allow that commission to do its good work.

NEIL MITCHELL: We have been shocked over years as detail comes out, do you think there are still more shocks that will come out here?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Look I anticipate there will be.  Personally it’s the most horrendous thing to hear of.  You can’t contemplate anything worse than such offences against children.  We do I think owe it to those victims, firstly to allow this to proceed and to provide some support, comfort and hopefully some action that can arise.  But also we owe it to the future – to our children in the future and children today to establish a better way of protecting them because clearly there is not a sufficient capacity for organisations to respond to child abuse and that is a national shame.

NEIL MITCHELL: Has anybody been approached to be a commissioner as yet?


NEIL MITCHELL: You’ll need several won’t you?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  The composition of the commission will be determined by year’s end.  The breadth of it, the resources, those things will have to be determined.  I and the Attorney-General are currently engaging with organisations, as I say victims’ groups, religious leaders, community organisations about the terms of reference on behalf of the Prime Minister.  So we want to do that very quickly, we want to finish that by the end of this year and of course there’ll be an announcement of the composition of the commission then.

NEIL MITCHELL: And it’s open ended or go as long as necessary?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well, you want the terms of reference to give a guide but I don’t think once the Government creates an independent body like this that it can then prescribe its activities to the extent that it can determine the duration for example.  We have to allow the commission to determine to a large extent its own destiny, pursuant to those terms.

NEIL MITCHELL: Does that mean it could have its own investigators?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well again, I mean if you look at royal commissions of the past and they’ve had very wide powers, I think those matters are yet to be determined.  But what the Prime Minister’s made very clear, this is a systemic failure by religious and non-religious organisations and also clearly a failure to look after children in state care.  That is very wide and we have to look at having sufficient resources for the commission to properly examine these matters and those matters will be determined very soon.

NEIL MITCHELL: Some problems crossing state lines? The advice I got that in a sense that if you find offences committed in Victoria as part of this inquiry, how is that handled?  Can the federal body

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Yes, there are constitutional matters that need to be considered.  That’s why the conversations that the Prime Minister had with Premiers from Victoria and New South Wales are important, and I understand that they’ve been very welcoming of this approach. We all want to work very closely and I know the Prime Minister will be talking to other Premiers and Chief Ministers.

What we need is a national response.  This is beyond politics.  I welcome the fact that the federal Opposition has supported this approach and I welcome the fact that Premiers from Victoria and New South Wales have also done so to date and we hope to see all jurisdictions agree about this approach so the constitutional challenges are of course less complex.

Neil if I could, if you allow me, I’ve got a hotline number –

NEIL MITCHELL: Yes, please –

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  – that I’d like to provide to you obviously before the commission’s established, but this number is operating now for those who might want to call. This is established in the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and the number is 1800 099 340.

NEIL MITCHELL: Yep, okay. 1800 099 340.  Thank you for your time.


NEIL MITCHELL: Brendan O’Connor, Acting Minister for Families.