The third in a three part series considering lessons from the Australian Royal Commission.
To protect their privacy all survivors have been given false names.
In interviews conducted with 26 adult survivors of child sexual abuse, participants described a variety of reasons for engaging with the Australian Royal Commission. Many participants identified that one of their reasons for wanting to make a submission to the Australian Royal Commission was that they saw it as a place where they could tell someone not only about their experiences of abuse, but about the impacts of this.
Criminal justice and civil law processes often focus on details, with the intent of either proving or disproving that abuse occurred: the survivor becomes simply a witness, required to provide a coherent and credible account of what happened, with little space to discuss the impact of abuse within their lives.
The Australian Royal Commission had status and authority, which supported participants' sense that they were contributing meaningfully to a collective historical record. Some of these contributions were made in private sessions where survivors told their story to one or more Commissioners. The Commissioners’ wealth of life experience carried an aura of importance and knowledgeability, and many participants reported that Commissioners formed authentic connections with them during private sessions in ways that amplified the healing impacts of being heard and believed.
Jake describes the powerful impact for him of being able to tell his story in a setting which was formal and conveyed a sense of seriousness, yet still remained somehow human and warm.
They asked genuinely caring questions around, “Okay, well, you said this but is there more to it than that?” And then there was a lot of, “You seem like a smart lad you know. Have you observed anything? Learnt anything? Is there anything you would like to do differently?” And they listened to all of that with great genuine interest and care. And that was no different in the final interaction which was my private session.
And I have said to Commissioners, I have said to Royal Commission lawyers that I have worked with, to federal police and State police that I have worked with through the Commission process. They [the Commissioners] have listened to thousands and thousands and thousands of horrendous stories and how they have kept their compassion through all of that and their sincerity and their genuine care and interest. It was just a thing to behold because I can’t understand how they did it. And it really was that breathtaking. As a survivor it was that breathtaking.
Jake also commented on the relief that came from being believed, and from feeling that the Royal Commission recognised how difficult the impacts of abuse had been for him.
In contrast, Bettina felt attacked, disbelieved, and as if she didn't matter. After a very positive experience in her private session, Bettina agreed to participate in a public hearing, where an interrogative and aggressive approach resulted in a frightening, humiliating experience. Despite the best of intentions, for Bettina, the Australian Royal Commission was yet another traumatic attempt to tell that compounded the negative impacts of abuse.
That was extreme trauma that day [having personal letters exposed in the public hearing]. They just kept letting this guy go on and on and talking as if I was liar, and that I'd said things that were untrue. And then you had the Counsel Assisting the Commission saying, "Oh what do we do here? We've got a prior inconsistent statement." And I'm thinking, 'no you haven't.' And it was like the Commission had decided that I'd lied. And I ended up standing up. I mean, my hands were wringing like ... twisting ... my hands were twisting and I'd been obviously distressed earlier, embracing my eldest son, and it was horrible for him too to see that done to me. And the other survivor witnesses were sitting beside and behind me, and they all saw. And they were all horrified… It was really horrendously distressing and the commissioners had watched it go on…
And when they rang me on that day and were talking to me, they said, "We heard how institutions attack witnesses, but we've never seen it happening before our eyes." And I thought 'Well, it wasn't just before your eyes, you were in control of it. You could have stopped it at any time.' But they were so bound up in their normal legalistic protocol, that, although they were supposedly there to ... we were there to... for healing, and to assist them in their work. Actually, we were treated ... you know. I wasn't treated that way.
Bettina experienced debilitating trauma responses after her experience at the public hearing, and many months later was still struggling to cope with the impacts.
I was spending most of my time lying of the floor with my phone and computer within reach and a bottle of water. And I couldn't tell them what I needed. That was what they were saying, "What do you need?" And I thought, "You've had all of this the evidence before you, what it does and how the institution should have good follow-up and good support for anyone who's been victimised, and all the rest of it." And when it happens within your own organisation, that's not what you're providing me. You're asking me to tell you what I need. And I just felt, in the end I think said, "I feel like I've been hit by a car, run over. I've managed to crawl over to the gutter. And that's pretty much all I can do." So, it was horrendous. It was like I'd trusted, yet again. I'd trusted in the Commission. And after trusting in people again I've had everything just wiped away.
Survivors are accustomed to reading their environments closely, in order to evaluate how safe or unsafe they are in each moment. The way the Australian Royal Commission connected with survivors sent important messages about their worth and safety: Phone calls returned quickly told them 'You are important to us'. Carefully selected venues and the provision of cakes and cups of tea said 'We want you to be comfortable'. Attentive and compassionate staff said 'We see you. We believe you. We care about what happened to you, and we care what happens to you now.' Conversely, a hostile public hearing told Bettina "You were wrong to think you could trust us.'
A public inquiry must decide whether its goal is to gather the information necessary to make change, whether to attempt to provide some healing and justice for participants through the process itself -or, ambitiously, whether to combine these two goals. For survivors who participate in public inquiries, these possibilities are inextricably linked. If they provide evidence in a hostile environment, they are unlikely to feel valued. If they provide evidence in a warm and caring environment, yet see that after the inquiry nothing changes, they are unlikely to feel valued. Many survivors are driven to participate in public inquiries in the hope that they can help protect others from abuse, and contribute to a vision of a better future for people affected by trauma.
Whether the Australian Royal Commission or the New Zealand Inquiry succeeds at creating meaningful and lasting change on the issue of child abuse remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that being believed, feeling seen and heard, being treated like they matter, and having someone in a position of authority communicate that what happened to them was not okay and was not their fault, can be a transformative experience for survivors. In contrast, interactions which mirror other invalidating, adversarial, or skeptical responses to disclosure compound the impacts of abuse and subject survivors to further trauma.
As Larry says so eloquently:
I have a very clear image of Commissioner Atkinson talking to me, and it's a bit like the father, if you like. A very generous, open father saying, "I understand what you've told me, and you are an acceptable person." That's what I heard. "I understand what happened to you, and I understand that you are an acceptable person. That you are okay." And that's what I walked away with.
To me that was really quite profound because it meant that all the things that I'd been believing that I wasn't an okay person, that I was second-rate, that I really was a blight on humanity were being challenged. And he was the first person that actually really challenged them. And he was a person with status. A Royal Commissioner, that's a pretty, you know, in my mind that was a really high-status person telling me I'm okay. And that was really powerful for me. And so from that I took away the sense that, yes, I can move on from here, that I can do something…. I walked away feeling reassured. I walked away feeling of some value. And I walked away feeling that, as a human being, that I did have some potential that I could make my life better.
Feeling that the Australian Royal Commission understood the severity and pain of the impacts of child abuse was important for many participants, as was an acknowledgement that they had been telling the truth all along. These acknowledgements carried another message too: that the Australian Royal Commission recognised the wrongdoing of perpetrators and those who had helped to conceal abuse.
While recognition cannot undo the harms of child abuse, it can provide some sense of fairness, restoration or justice. For people who, as children, were often made to feel responsible for what had happened to them, and that their suffering was not important enough for bystanders to intervene, the recognition of innocence and suffering provided by a dedicated, courageous Inquiry sends an important message about survivors' value as members of the community. It tells survivors "you matter to us'.
For further information about this study please email Rebecca at email@example.com