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Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission Press Conference

Justice Peter McClellan and the other commissioners of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have held a press conference to outline the early steps the inquiry will take.

McClellan read a statement to the media. He did not take questions.


  • Listen to McClellan’s statement (11m)

Text of statement by Justice Peter McClellan.


Our purpose in meeting with you this afternoon is to briefly explain how the Commission will approach its work in accordance with the Letters Patent and the steps which must be taken before the Commission can commence the process of gathering evidence.

The Royal Commission has been charged with examining the sexual abuse of children in the context of institutions throughout Australia. Having regard to what is already publicly known of these problems the task before the Commission is large. However, until the Commission has commenced its work and people come forward to give us an account of their personal circumstances we cannot gauge the full extent of that task. In recognition of the complexity of the issues which the Commission must examine the government has appointed six commissioners. Each of us has different backgrounds, professional experience, qualifications and expertise. We live in different regions of Australia. To assist the Commission in its work we understand that the government proposes to amend the Royal Commissions Act to provide that the Commissioners need not all sit when conducting a formal hearing. If that legislative change is made the Commission will utilise this capacity in an endeavour to gain a complete understanding of the problems in various parts of Australia in the most efficient manner possible. Even with this legislative change our task is complex and will take significant time.

It is important to understand that the Commission is not a prosecuting body. Our investigative processes will be utilised to receive and consider what we expect will be accounts by individuals who tell of their experience when living within or when they were associated with an institution. The Commission will be concerned to examine these individual accounts to determine how the circumstances arose, the relevant management practices of the institution in which they occurred and the response which the institution has made to any complaint of sexual abuse by an individual. Because the Commission is not a prosecuting body it will establish links with the appropriate authorities in each State and Territory to whom a matter may be referred with the expectation that where appropriate prosecutorial proceedings may commence. It is also important to understand that the Commission is not charged with determining whether any person may be entitled to compensation for any injury which they may have suffered.

All of the Commissioners are aware of the sensitivity of the issues which the Commission must examine and the concern for individuals who may have been affected by their experiences. Many will be apprehensive about the public exposure of those experiences. For that reason the Commission will put in place procedures, including various means by which a person may give their account which will ensure that the interests of individuals are protected and at the same time ensure that the process is fair to other individuals and institutions. This may mean that proceedings will take place in private, real names may not be used and it may be necessary to place other constraints on the reporting of individual matters. However, where possible the Commission will proceed in public. Public knowledge of what may have occurred and an understanding of the institutional responses both in the past and those proposed in the future is a fundamental objective of the Commission.

As you are aware the Commission was formally constituted last Friday. Work has commenced on bringing together the necessary administrative, research, legal and associated skills. A website has also been created.

The Commission has in place a 1800 telephone number which is 1800 099 340. At present callers to that number will have their details taken. When the Commission has in place trained staff, which is a matter of the highest priority, contact will be made to ensure that interested persons have an opportunity to give their account to the Commission. The website presently has a capacity for people who wish to speak with the Commission to leave their personal details so that the Commission can follow up an inquiry and obtain their evidence or submission.

Although preparatory work has commenced many further tasks must be undertaken and skilled personnel engaged before the Commission can commence the evidence gathering process. It may be some months before the progress of the Commission will be apparent to the general public. The Commission will base its primary office and associated facilities in Sydney. However, evidence will be gathered at many locations throughout Australia.

The Commission is aware that there has been considerable public discussion about the powers which the Commission has to enquire into matters which are the subject of confidential agreements. We wish to emphasise that under the Royal Commissions Act the Commission has powers to compel the production of evidence, including documents, and we will not hesitate in an appropriate case to exercise those powers. We will, of course be mindful of the potential sensitivity of some of those matters which may require the Commission to place constraints upon the further publication of any details which it obtains by this means.

However, the Commission expects that all institutions that may have entered into confidential agreements with individuals will cooperate with the Commission in relation to the disclosure of those matters.

The issues which the Commission must enquire into have been the subject of public discussion both in this country and in other countries for a number of years. The Commission is mindful of the work which has been done in various parts of Australia and will seek to draw upon the material which has already been gathered by those inquiries. The Commission is also mindful that the Letters Patent provide the broadest geographical reach for our inquiries and will require us to look at institutions in the cities, regional, rural and remote areas of Australia. This includes institutions which may have provided facilities for or assistance to persons from indigenous communities. We are also conscious of the possibility that there may be persons now living overseas who the Commission may wish to speak with. Arrangements will be made which so far as it is possible will enable this to occur.

We are also conscious that our Terms of Reference will require us to make particular provision to ensure that children, young persons, persons living with disabilities and mental health problems, those who may be currently incarcerated, refugees and persons from culturally and linguistically diverse communities are all able to give an account of their experience to the Commission.

The Commission is in the process of establishing a research capacity. We anticipate that the research which has already been undertaken by other bodies will be of significant assistance to the Commission.

The Commission will be assisted by a legal team drawn from the Australian Government Solicitor. Ms Gail Furness SC has been appointed as counsel assisting the Commission. Because of the size of the Commission’s task we anticipate that it will be necessary to appoint other counsel.

It is unusual for a Royal Commission to address the public other than in a formal sitting and we have only done it on this occasion to explain that the effective setting up of the Commission is complex and fundamental if we are to properly discharge our function. There are many matters to be resolved and resources to be put in place before we can hold any public hearings. It is not possible for us to identify when public sittings may commence. However, the Commission will ensure that its work will be conducted as efficiently as the issues which emerge will allow. The website will be frequently updated to ensure that the public are kept informed of the work of the Commission.

On behalf of all of the Commissioners, I thank you for joining us today, and as I have indicated we will communicate in the appropriate manner from time to time into the future.

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