On Wednesday, Australia set an example for the world by opening an official inquiry that will allow people who were sexually abused as children in institutions to finally tell their stories.
At least 5,000 Australians are expected to be heard by the commission, many of them able to recount their experiences in private before the six-member panel. They will shed light on a half century of abuse in orphanages, churches, schools, detention centers, and child-care centers, and groups such as the military, Scouts, and organized sports.
Up until now, many were too ashamed to speak out. Or their stories were neglected by authorities. As children, they suffered for years in silence.
It is noteworthy that a woman prime minister, Julia Gillard, set up this panel.
“I want this to be a moment of healing, for us to say to them as a nation ‘we hear you, you’re valued, and you’re believed’ because for too long, so many of these survivors have just run into closed doors and closed minds,” Ms. Gillard told ABC NewsRadio.
The commission’s purpose is not to prosecute or award compensation. Rather it is, as the chairman, Justice Peter McClellan, stated, “to bear witness, on behalf of the nation, to the abuse and consequential trauma inflicted on many people who have suffered sexual abuse as children.”
The panel will also make recommendations for new laws and practices to prevent further sex abuse in both private and public institutions.
Empathy and truth-telling can be powerful healers, as many doctors now recognize. In cases of sexual abuse, it can help ease a person’s suffering by shining the truth onto an evil act and dissipating its emotional hold. When an entire nation takes responsibility for having so many institutions that allowed the abuse to take place – and then covered it up – the empathy is writ large.
“There have been too many adults who have averted their eyes to this evil,” Gillard said. She said the commission’s work will be a “moral moment” for Australians.
The panel comes soon after a similar inquiry by Ireland into decades of institutional sex abuse there. And it also builds on a global trend toward using “truth commissions” – in countries from post-apartheid South Africa to one possibly in post-dictatorship Tunisia where the Arab Spring began.
A commission in Canada is finishing up a probe into past treatment of its aboriginal children forced into schools for cultural assimilation. In February, Maine started a truth commission into the forced assimilation of native Wabanaki children.
Many “truth” panels aim for social reconciliation by allowing victims to tell their stories and perpetrators to confess their actions and apologize. Often such actions can be a substitute for harsh justice if done well and if institutional reforms are made.
As Australia’s panel does its work over the next couple years, other nations can learn from it. Breaking a society’s conspiracy of silence about child sex abuse is a major first step toward preventing it. And being heard and embraced will help the abused to be healed.