National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (Commonwealth Powers) Bill 2018

15th May 2018

Mr GREG PIPER ( Lake Macquarie ) ( 17:10 :14 ): I support the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (Commonwealth Powers) Bill 2018. I note that members have taken a bipartisan approach to this bill, and it is important that we have broad support for such an important measure. The bill reflects the commitment made by the State Government in March to participate in the National Redress Scheme for survivors of child sexual abuse. All members should thank the Attorney General, the Premier and the Government for stepping up to the plate so quickly and making it clear that New South Wales would take up its rightful position in the Australian Federation as a leader in addressing this issue.

The national scheme was recommended by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and will be introduced on 1 July 1 this year if approved by New South Wales and the other States. I mean this as no criticism, but members of the Opposition raised apparent conflicts between the royal commission recommendations and this bill. I note that a number of States must agree and that means there are practical reasons for this drafting of the bill. I thank the Attorney General and his staff for allowing me to access information about the drafting of the bill because it provided me with more information than I would normally get.

As we know, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual abuse was the result of a concerted campaign in the Hunter Region that shone an intense light on the historic abuse and cover-ups within churches and other institutions, mainly in the Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and Maitland areas. The issue was largely brought to light in articles by courageous Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy. Her then editor gave her the power to pursue an extremely difficult issue involving a strict taboo. Despite that, she persisted in investigating the protection provided to sexual abuse perpetrators and the institutions that protected them. There appeared to be a nod-and-a-wink club which protected people or institutions and which ensured that they were not brought to account. Joanne McCarthy and the Newcastle Herald gave the victims a voice.

I acknowledge Joanne McCarthy and the other people who have done fantastic work in this area, including former Superintendent Peter Fox. Peter has been a courageous campaigner and has stared down a great deal of hostility aimed at him. I also acknowledge the member for Dubbo and Minister for Police, Troy Grant. I respect the Minister. I have always said that regardless of anything else I will have an abiding regard for him because of his dogged and unrelenting pursuit of one of the most terrible perpetrators of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church; that is, Father Vince Ryan. The Minister did a fantastic job in that regard in his role as a police officer.

I took a personal interest in this issue because it would be fair to say that the Hunter was the epicentre of institutional sexual abuse, particularly in the Catholic Church and at St Pius X High School at Adamstown. I attended that school for my entire high school education and I knew many of the perpetrators. However, more importantly, I knew many of the victims. Unfortunately, I did not know that they were victims at the time. It is not necessarily easy to tell, but hindsight allows us to recognise a range of identifiable behaviours. Of course, we cannot ignore the other cruelty perpetrated by that school and the Catholic education system at the time. They were cruel institutions that would delight in the use of corporal punishment and I am extremely pleased to see them brought to account. I am sad for the good Catholics, those people of true faith who would have stood up if they had known what was happening. However, too many of them probably knew or suspected it was happening but failed to do anything. To use a phrase often used by people of faith, "There is a special place in hell for them."

Unfortunately, there were many hundreds of victims in the Hunter. Among them was John Pirona, whose parents live in my electorate and whom I have had the good fortune of getting to know. John's suicide in July 2012 was a tipping point in the minds of many in our community. Indeed, it was one of the main catalysts for the royal commission. It certainly attracted the attention of the Newcastle Herald and Joanne McCarthy. Along with too many others, John was sexually abused as a child by a Catholic priest, John Denham, while at St Pius X High School in Adamstown. Father Denham's name has become synonymous with evil. After many years of internal conflict and private despair, John Pirona left a note for his wife that simply read, "Too much pain." [Extension of time]

I imagine that many who went before John felt that very same sentiment, and many would still feel it today. His death, while tragic in itself, came to represent the loss of many. At John's funeral, his father Lou said, "No person or organisation should be above or outside the law." The former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was in Newcastle at the time. She announced the establishment of the royal commission three months later. Having discussed this issue with Joanne McCarthy, I asked a former Premier, Barry O'Farrell, whether he would trigger a royal commission. He took advice and declined to do so. However, he did establish a commission of inquiry headed by Margaret Cunneen into the abuses perpetrated by the Catholic Church in the Hunter. I believe that that, too, was a step towards the establishment of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. I therefore acknowledge that the current Government has played a positive role in addressing this issue.

I acknowledge the people who had the courage to appear before the commission of inquiry and who told their stories. The inquiry provided them with the platform they needed. I also acknowledge those who heard the stories: the commissioners, the supporting solicitors and the staff. It would have been a traumatic experience listening to people talk about heinous crimes committed against them when they were so young by institutions in whom we placed blind trust and faith over many years. The inquiry heard from thousands of sexual abuse survivors throughout Australia. They are survivors, but unfortunately too many people did not survive. Like John Pirona's story, every story is tragic.

This bill is another important step in the healing process for victims of such abuse. However, it is also an important step in our society becoming what it should be. It is important that we maintain vigilance and that we continue to improve. The Government already has implemented other royal commission recommendations, including the removal of limitation periods on the capacity of victims to come forward. This is a vital issue. We are talking about children who repressed the violence and terrible acts committed against them and who often lived troubled lives because they did not know how to deal with their pain. By the way, they were not supported by many institutions at the time. It is a huge advance that the barrier of the statute of limitations will be removed. The Government has assured me that more than 50 of the royal commission's recommendations will be in place by the end of this year. That is great.

This bill will enable the Federal Government to establish the National Redress Scheme for Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, which will put the needs and rights of victims first. I again acknowledge the Attorney General and his staff, who have prepared this bill and who have taken the time to answer questions about the implications of its implementation. I note specifically that the scheme will fund support services for all applicants with special needs of some sort, be that a disability or a language or cultural issue. That is extremely important. I also note that it will allow for urgent cases to be expedited, and that payments to survivors will not be regarded as income for the purposes of taxation, social security or other entitlements.

Sadly, history now records the extent of abuse within a number of churches and organisations. It was a time when fears and taboos existed and justice was not easy. As I said, the institutions that we trusted protected and gave power to the perpetrators. That should never be allowed to happen again. We no longer treat victims like criminals. That is how they felt; they believed that the abuse happened because of something they did or some failing in their character. That is so wrong.

I acknowledge all survivors of sexual abuse and hope they are beginning to see a new life in a society that supports them and stands by them. I applaud their resilience, courage and bravery. The healing process is a long one and, dare I say, may never end. This bill is not only about holding perpetrators and their protectors to account; it goes to the next step. It is about supporting victims or survivors of awful, unhinged lust. I again acknowledge those who have not been able to stay the course because they did not have the support they needed. We have lost too many good people. I acknowledge those who have stepped up and the champions, such as Peter Fox, Joanne McCarthy and others including Troy Grant, who have ensured that this legislation has been introduced. I obviously strongly support this bill.

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