Transcript by The Hon Brendan O’Connor MP

Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse

Program: Drive - 720 ABC Perth, Russell Woolf

E&OE – Check Against Delivery

RUSSELL WOOLF:             The Federal Government has today announced there’ll be a royal commission into the way institutions have responded to allegations of child abuse. This follows revelations from a New South Wales policeman that his investigations into sexual abuse were hampered by other police, as well as, he says, the Catholic Church. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said today the royal commission will cover religious and state institutions.

One of those responsible for setting it up is the acting Minister for Families, Brendan O’Connor, and he is my guest on Drive today. Minister, it’s nice to talk to you.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Yeah, it’s good to be here, Russell.

RUSSELL WOOLF:             What are the key questions that you want this royal commission to answer?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well, I think, firstly, it’s about the victims, what we can do to provide them a voice. What can we do to ensure that the claims that they make are properly investigated. But most of all, I think, we need to examine thoroughly the institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sex abuse and the royal commission and its terms of reference will go to those matters.

RUSSELL WOOLF:             If you find institutions that have systemic problems, is there a chance that some places will be closed down?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well, I think we need to really allow, firstly, the creation of the terms of reference, the composition of the commission, the recommendations pursuant to the legislation to the Governor-General by the Prime Minister to take effect. And, of course, the commission then has on its own volition the capacity to examine these matters and will report on them.

We don’t want to prejudice the process. We’re establishing this body in order for it to do good work to help people who’ve been subject to some of the most heinous crimes that you really could ever imagine, and to help their families to come to come to grips with what’s happened.

So I think this is a very important decision. They’re not made lightly. It’s a big decision to make to establish such a commission, but the Prime Minister believed it was critical to do so in light of the allegations that have been made across the spectrum.

RUSSELL WOOLF:             My guest on Drive is the Acting Minister for Families, Brendan O’Connor, it’s 16 past five. The Prime Minister said today that she wanted to take her time to form the terms of reference for this royal commission, and that over the next few weeks she will be conducting a consultation process, I guess. And you’re a part of that.


RUSSELL WOOLF:             So, does that mean the terms – you know, could we expect the terms of reference to be in place – I’m not looking for you to give me a date, but, you know, the…


RUSSELL WOOLF:             Early new year?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well, we’re looking to have the terms of reference and the composition of the commission determined by year’s end. We believe that we need to engage with organisations that have been very much at the forefront of this issue. And this evening, I spoke to, for example, Brian Babington, the CEO of Families Australia, one of the key individuals in the coalition of organisations committed to the safety and well-being of Australia’s children. And he was very, very pleased to hear of the Prime Minister’s announcement.

And I think it’s really critical we do that, and get this right and take people with us. And I know, of course, the Prime Minister’s also spoken to the Premiers of New South Wales and Victoria. They have their own matters on foot, but as I understand it, they were very much interested in working with the Federal Government in doing whatever we can for the victims, and also, to prevent such crimes wherever possible happening again.

RUSSELL WOOLF:             And does it mean also in that period, therefore, consultation with religious institutions?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  There’ll be consultation with organisations, we talked about the breadth, including children in state care, children in religious organisations and, indeed, children that might have been in the care of not-for-profit organisations. So, we’ll certainly be clear about what we want to do and we want to engage fully on that.

Ultimately, of course, the recommendations will be determined by the Government, by the Prime Minister. But we need to consult.

I mean, these matters are very confronting. The stories we’ve heard to date, the allegations, the fact that there are so many who feel that they’ve not had an opportunity to tell their story or have their claims properly examined. This commission will provide some of that, and I think we want to get the architecture right, and that’s why we’ll talk to people.

RUSSELL WOOLF:             Imagine if you can being a child in a dark room trembling with fear every night because you hear footsteps down the corridor and you are powerless and tiny and somebody that is powerful and respected and large enters into your room and abuses you and tells you that if you speak out about it then some great harm is going to come to your parents or people that you love, you know, gives you a line like that and it makes you so fearful – and then if you pluck up the courage after suffering that abuse and tell a grown-up and that grown-up then turns a blind eye to it or is somehow a part of it, can this royal commission take those people and see that they’re dealt with by the justice system?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well look, you know when you establish such a body, you know you can’t – you’re not likely to fix everything. You’re not going to stop every offence that will be committed in the future. But what you’d hope through this process is that those people who want to tell a story, want to let their voice be heard about what happened to them are accommodated and those claims are investigated.

And I think, as significantly, the way in which institutions responded or failed to respond to such allegations of such heinous offences against our most vulnerable in our communities, namely children, needs to be properly dealt with and this is I think the best measure and indeed the Prime Minister believes this is the best means by which we can do that.

RUSSELL WOOLF:             But the people that are found who have done something wrong or those that have turned a blind eye to it or in some way assisted, can criminal charges come out of this commission?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well, the commission will have full powers of a royal commission and those matters will be determined by the commission, we will establish it. Where it goes to do its good work will be very much up to the commission.

But as you know, given the history of royal commissions in the past, they have certainly remedied the way in which we’ve conducted ourselves as a society in the past. They’ve pointed to systemic problems which need redressing.

We would hope that this commission provides an opportunity for a proper examination of these institutions, religious, non-religious, those children in state care, what we are failing to do, what have we failed to do historically to look after children and what we need to do to fix that. I mean that’s certainly fundamentally the central reason for the creation of the royal commission.

RUSSELL WOOLF:             Do you sense that – I mean if this royal commission works that you’re going to discover some very nasty truths and we’re going to discover some very nasty truths, do you get a sense that this level of abuse that’s been going on for so long reaches high and high into society?

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Certainly allegations that have been made point to the conclusion that there are people in positions of power in organisations that have prevented a proper examination of claims of sexual abuse of children. And there’s sufficient stories being told, allegations being made, sexual abuse offences being determined to suggest that there has been a failure by institutions to respond effectively in cases of child sex abuse generally. And so we need a royal commission with sufficient powers, with appropriate terms of reference to deal with this matter.

RUSSELL WOOLF:             An appropriate terms of reference, could it include things that – I mean the rules and regulations for this royal commission see them more highly placed perhaps than confidentiality clauses within certain professions.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Well look we’re not going to prejudice the discussions or limit or rule in or out elements at this point. I mean the announcement was today Russell, but I think there are a range of questions that deserve answering and there are some threshold questions about the terms of reference that have to be fully considered.

At this point we’ve made clear we want the commission to focus on institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sex abuse. We want the commission to have full powers to examine these matters and we obviously want to determine the composition of the commission by the end of the year. And of course more will come to light beyond that. But when you call for such a commission of course we need to deal with this matter systemically and seriously and this government aims to do that.

RUSSELL WOOLF:             I appreciate you spending the time with us Brendan O’Connor.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR:  Not at all Russell.