Royal Commission update – part 1

In the past three months, as the IICSA has been mired in criticism and controversy, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Australia has shown how a wide ranging inquiry in connection with child abuse can make progress. It is worth considering its published work from just the last three months, some of which is very specific to organisations and circumstances in Australia but much of which is of wider guidance and relevance outside of that jurisdiction. As so much has happened which is not just of interest but of practical assistance we will consider the work of the Royal Commission in two separate blogs published over the next two days.

Inquiry hearings and reports:

  • The Catholic Church – the Catholic Church if taken as a whole has been involved in more of the case studies than any other organisation. It has also been the focus of a number of issues papers including Issues Paper 11, which is considering any factors which may have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions or may have affected the institutional response of the Catholic Church to child sexual abuse. The submissions received on that topic have been published and the evidence will contribute to the final hearing about the Catholic Churches response to child abuse in February 2017.
  • Hearings are continuing and requests have been made for submissions about a wide range of organisations including the Scouts, YMCA, Salvation Army, Australian Christian churches and affiliated Pentecostal churches, Catholic Church Authorities, Anglican Church Authorities, Yeshivah, Uniting Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • A report released into the Salvation Army’s Southern Territory noted the extent of abuse and also commented upon the claims made and the approach which had been taken in dealing with those claims. It was noted that in the resolution of claims there were instances in which the Salvation Army relied on technical legal defences, statutes of limitations and vicarious liability principles. Whilst it has since reviewed settled claims, prioritising cases where claimants were not represented and cases where new factual material has come to light after a claim was settled the Royal Commission recommended that represented claimants who settled their claims at a time when the Salvation Army relied on technical defences should also be included in the review. This is clearly of interest for organisations which have in the past faced claims which have been repudiated. It always remains open to any of the ongoing inquiries in various jurisdictions to make recommendations that those claims should be reviewed. That possibility is not something which should be ignored.
  • A report in connection with Satyananda Yoga Ashram concluded that not only had there been abuse in the 1970s and 1980s but that the primary concern in responding to the Royal Commission had been to minimise the risk of damaging the reputation of Satyananda yoga. The report notes that “The Bihar School of Yoga’s response did not properly prioritise the welfare of survivors over the interests of the ‘brand’ of Satyananda yoga.” Further, during the public hearing the ashram had adopted an approach which was at times insensitive, defensive and legalistic. Any organisation which is involved in giving evidence at a public hearing should ensure it has considered an appropriate approach if in due course it wishes to avoid damage to its reputation and brand.
  • Sexual behaviour in schools – a public hearing has recently commenced into the response to children with problematic or harmful sexual behaviours in schools. Whilst this will look at a number of named schools its scope is much wider including consideration of systems, policies, procedures and practices for responding to allegations of problematic or harmful sexual behaviours of children within educational institutions including the part played by the Department for Education and the Association of Independent Schools.

In total, to date, the Royal Commission has started 45 case studies and published the evidence presented, submissions, transcripts and final reports for many of these. The reports contain recommendations specific to the organisations concerned but also wider recommendations which can be equally applied to other organisations, particularly where they are of a similar nature. It is reasonable to expect and has already been seen with the ongoing work of the Royal Commission that it is asking how its recommendations have been implemented and no doubt there is scope for criticism if it is found they have been ignored.


Paula Jefferson, Partner

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