The first in a three part series considering lessons from the Australian Royal Commission.
To protect their privacy all survivors have been given false names.
As part of a PhD research project at University of New South Wales, I interviewed 26 child sexual abuse survivors who made submissions to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Australian Royal Commission). We discussed their reasons for engaging with the Australian Royal Commission, their experiences making written submissions, attending private sessions or public hearings, and how they felt after participating.
Many participants felt that their contact with the Australian Royal Commission was one of the most healing and meaningful experiences of their lives.
Larry describes what a private session meant for him:
I felt a sense of relief that I had been here. I've told them my story, and they haven't dismissed me. They haven't said, "oh, that's not important, it wasn't terribly…you've wasted our time." I had the feeling that when I started to talk that they would say, “oh, ho-hum, that's not terribly bad. So what?” But the fact that they gave me credibility, they accepted what I was saying, and put value onto what I was saying, I thought was wonderful. And that sense of relief that, yes, all those things that I feel have been vindicated. That, in a sense, I don't need to minimise this anymore. I can just let it be. I can just deal with it as it is.
Alison had a similar experience:
[The Commissioner] turned her chair towards me and just listened. She just looked at me and listened. And I wasn't interrupted and there was no objection and there was no, "Can we stop that there?" It was just these people who were part of our normal government system, and our normal judicial system, and who represent all of us, all of us in Australia, and who are doing this on behalf of the Australian government. It was like, I am sitting here and they are listening to me. They're listening to my story and they're acknowledging me. And I can't tell you, I just cannot tell you how, for me, what a pivotal moment that was. I felt like I could have worn a cloak out there that said "I matter" on the back of it.
However, other people had experiences that were disappointing, distressing, and for some, traumatic. Jay had hoped that the Australian Royal Commission was somewhere that she could finally be heard, but instead felt that she was dismissed as unimportant, and that her abuse experiences were minimised.
Because I feel that nobody has heard me. They've listened without hearing. They've heard it as sort of just waffle words. They don't hear it as anything important, or anything that they need to actually react to. And so, I am now investing enormous amounts of emotional energy into my latest attempt to tell.
Stories like Larry's, Alison's, and Jay's can tell us a great deal about the potential for public inquiries to be powerfully healing experiences for participants, or to compound the injuries of people who have already suffered greatly.
Hope, trust, and meaning
Publicity and media reporting on the Inquiry provides crucial information for survivors who are trying to figure out whether participation is likely to be safe for them. Many survivors have historically been disbelieved, had their experiences of abuse minimised, and felt blamed for what happened to them. Providing transparent public information via the Inquiry's website is valuable in communicating to survivors that they will be treated well.
The way the Inquiry is discussed in the mass media is another important source of information for survivors who are considering making a submission: if they see that the Inquiry is being honest and courageous in its approach to a difficult issue, has a good understanding of how the trauma of childhood abuse affects people, and truly values its participants, they may begin to build a sense of trust. Ultimately, the Inquiry must trade on its reputation. It is, after all, another institution – and survivors of abuse in care have little reason to trust institutions.
A number of research participants said that they expected the Australian Royal Commission would be a relatively safe place to tell their stories, without exposing themselves to frightening legal consequences, or the aggressively sceptical responses they expected from the criminal justice system, institutions and their legal teams.
Larry figured that speaking to the Australian Royal Commission might be difficult and exposing, but in his assessment it was 'safe enough', and worth the risk.
I knew that the Commission weren't going to attack me, but I knew that I was exposing myself and I felt a little bit vulnerable about that.
Claire said that she carefully considered what she knew about the Australian Royal Commission from the media coverage, and how this impacted on her decision to make a submission.
I think we found that watching the Royal Commission on the TV or reading it on the Internet, we found that they were really honest and really just upfront with what shame does to a person or why shame is part of trauma, and I feel like they were really brave at putting those messages out there because really you don't hear about trauma in the media a lot and I think we felt really - I guess maybe encouraged in a way to actually face it head on because the Royal Commission were being so brave really and so professional in the way they approached all of everything they did.
Jasmine, who knows that her perpetrators can still hurt her, valued the option of anonymity.
I think because my commission statement I had an option of being anonymous and sending it in, I had an option of giving information that was not necessarily going to damage me, but could kind of give a voice to some of the other kids that were involved that got hurt.
Like many survivors who have been told by perpetrators and others 'don't worry, you can trust me, you are safe here' only to discover that this is not true, Jasmine struggled to figure out whether the Australian Royal Commission really was safe for her, especially considering the links her main perpetrator had within government and law enforcement. Telling her story was very important to Jasmine, but also very difficult and frightening. Jasmine was fortunately well supported by a psychiatrist she trusts and spent time in a private hospital while she prepared for her submission, and afterwards while she recovered from the impact of stirring up memories and fear.
For a survivor to commit to participating in a public inquiry, an extension of faith is necessary: faith that they will be believed, valued, treated fairly, supported, and not pushed to places of unmanageable distress. Survivors are taking a risk and carrying a burden – while making a submission may be a meaningful process, it is unlikely to be pain-free. Some degree of hope is necessary to balance this.
Public information can inform prospective participants about the processes of the Inquiry, but it is also communicating something about the attitudes and values of the Inquiry, the government, and the community. The decision whether to participate is likely to be informed by the survivor's assessment of whether they will be safe enough, but also whether there is enough hope of a meaningful outcome – personally, and on the broader scale of systems change and better futures – to justify the personal cost.
History is littered with examples of public inquiries that did not lead to meaningful change. Survivors are drawn to participate for a mixture of personal reasons such as needing to be heard and believed, and social or political reasons such as wanting to contribute to a safer future for others. If an Inquiry asks survivors to commit to the personal costs of making a submission, it is important that the Inquiry does not let them down.
For further information about this study please email Rebecca at firstname.lastname@example.org