Scale of the task ahead is daunting

TRUTH, justice and redress: bold promises for a royal commission, but ones Australians have been longing to hear when it comes to the scandal of child sex abuse.

TRUTH, justice and redress: bold promises for a royal commission, but ones Australians have been longing to hear when it comes to the scandal of child sex abuse.

At first sight, victims and their supporters are greatly heartened by Friday's announcements: both the commissioners and the terms of reference seem excellent. The reasons why the inquiry was necessary - the suicides and premature deaths, the plight of survivors, the concealment and protection of predators, the barriers to justice, the need for law reform and more - are all recognised.

The government has promised the necessary resources, including for advocacy groups, given a long and extendable time frame, but balanced that with a request for an interim report after 18 months and set up a mechanism by which police can investigate and prosecute as the commission keeps working.

In some ways the most vital work the six commissioners will do over their three-year mandate will take place in the first two months, as they decide how they will operate and who they will hear. The commission has two mutually exclusive imperatives: to be as thorough as possible, yet also timely.

There were 800 submissions just on the terms of reference. Far more will want to tell their stories and the institutions need to reply. Although the commission can investigate any institution, there is little doubt that allegations about the Roman Catholic Church will dominate, as they have in the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into how the churches handled child sexual abuse.

The Salvation Army has an appalling record in Victoria, and state governments will face some awkward questions, but the Catholic Church has had by far the most perpetrators and the most recalcitrant policies.

The Victorian inquiry is going to continue its work, resuming on January 23, and this is a good decision. As chairwoman Georgie Crozier said on Friday, it has already made significant progress. And the shocking headlines it has produced helped make the commission inevitable. It couldn't replace the commission, but it can help it.

But amid all the optimism, there are several grounds for caution. The sheer scale of the task is daunting. The recent royal commission into the Victorian bushfires, which took just over a year, had in the hearing room at any one time three commissioners, four or five barristers, up to 20 solicitors, plus witnesses and an army of IT and administrative staff. This operation is going to be considerably bigger, especially if it works in several venues.

Dividing the commissioners, and dividing evidence into formal and informal, will involve their own legal niceties that experienced lawyers say will need to be carefully considered.

Perhaps the most difficult task will be managing expectations. This royal commission can achieve a vast amount, but it cannot right all wrongs and it cannot offer categorical certainties.

The commissioners will not be like Moses ascending to the top of Mt Sinai to receive the tablets. Some careful listening and serious thinking awaits them.

Their biggest challenge is to change the culture in institutions, especially the Catholic Church. It is saying the right things about full co-operation, and its new lay-led advisory council seems promising. But the church around the world always says the right things but then fails to match the rhetoric. The evidence from the Vatican is that on this journey of 1000 miles it has only taken the first faltering step.

THE COMMISSIONERS

PETER McCLELLAN

Chief Judge at Common Law of the NSW Supreme Court

THE judge leading the royal commission on institutional child sexual abuse is best known for presiding over two Sydney murder cases. He acquitted Gordon Wood of throwing his girlfriend Caroline Byrne off the Gap at Watsons Bay and shot holes in the case against Jeffrey Gilham, who had been convicted of killing his parents and brother. He also holds some contentious views and is no fan of juries. And he once said that judges tended to live in wealthier areas less affected by crime and should be careful not to dismiss the views of shock jocks on sentencing.

BOB ATKINSON

Former Queensland police commissioner

Bob Atkinson joined the Queensland Police in 1968 and worked as a detective and head of the country Criminal Investigation Branch and Juvenile Aid offices before becoming commissioner in 2000.

While working as a detective in Noosa he helped orchestrate the arrest of Valmae Beck and her former partner Barrie Watts who were later convicted of the abduction, rape and murder of schoolgirl Sian Kingi in 1987.

In a speech on his retirement in September last year, Mr Atkinson said his greatest regret as commissioner was the death in custody of Cameron "Mulrunji" Doomadgee on Palm Island in November 2004.

JENNIFER COATE

Family Court judge

Jennifer Coate's experience in Victorian courts has focused on youth justice, child protection and family violence. As the first president of the Children's Court of Victoria, she led the creation of the Children's Koori Court and has chaired advisory groups for abused children and a number of youth and children's justice committees.

A former colleague, who preferred not to be named, said Judge Coate had a strong interest in young people. "She is one of the most well-grounded and balanced human beings you could ever wish to meet," she said. Judge Coate was a former County Court judge and state coroner during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

ROBERT FITZGERALD

Productivity Commission commissioner

Robert Fitzgerald, a Productivity Commissioner and former commercial lawyer, has close ties to the Catholic Church. He has volunteered at community groups for more than 30 years and is a director of non-religious youth charities The Benevolent Society and Foyer Foundation.

He has worked in senior positions at Catholic organisations, including NSW president of the St Vincent de Paul Society and national committee member of Caritas Australia. In 2001, he received an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University, where he is an adjunct professor and member of advisory boards.

HELEN MILROY

Academic and consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist

Australia's first indigenous psychiatrist, Helen Milroy has dedicated her career to advancing indigenous health and child mental health. Professor Milroy is the Winthrop professor and director of the Centre for Aboriginal Medical and Dental Health at the University of Western Australia and for some years treated sexually abused children at Princess Margaret Hospital.

Given her expertise in Aboriginal health, she will be best placed of the commissioners to address criticisms by the Greens that the terms of inquiry fail to address abuse in indigenous communities.

ANDREW MURRAY

Former Australian Democrats senator

When Andrew Murray starts work on the royal commission, it won't be the first time he has investigated how institutions have let down vulnerable children. The former Western Australian Democrats senator was a member of a parliamentary committee that inquired into children in institutional and out-of-home care.

The group's 2005 report opened with a quote from Nelson Mandela: "Any nation that does not care for and protect all of its children does not deserve to be called a nation."

Mr Murray is now a patron of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians and the Care Leavers Association of Australia.

TERMS OF REFERENCE

How organisations have managed and responded to claims of sexual abuse and other associated forms of abuse and neglect

Whether the response was enough

What can be done better to protect children under their care

What should be done to identify child sexual abuse and encourage people to report it

How organisations should respond when they find out information that

suggests instances of sexual abuse of children under their responsibility

Barriers and failures to reporting, investigating and dealing with cases of

child sexual abuse in organisations

How these barriers can be removed

How to support survivors

How to ensure victims receive justice

SCOPE

Commissioners can look at any public or private organisation that is or

has been involved with children

Commission will hear from people affected by child sexual abuse

Also will look at archives, records and documents, submissions from public, non-government and private organisations, and laws, policies and practices of institutions, organisations and governments

TIMING

Inquiry to start as soon as possible

Interim report by June 30, 2014

Royal commission set to end in 2015 but this could be extended

WHAT THEY SAID

We have no idea who the commissioners will ask to appear before them &

But one thing you can be assured of is the Catholic Church leadership has made it clear they will fully co-operate so the people the commission wish to speak with will be there.

Francis Sullivan, chief executive Truth, Justice and Healing Council (Catholic Church),

This is a substantial royal commission ... Its good to see that there are several commissioners, representing the police, judiciary, mental health and the legislative side.

Dr Cathy Kezelman, president Adults Surviving Child Abuse

Our only concern is the absence of specific reference to Aboriginal abuse. We

certainly encourage the commissioners to ensure that they visit indigenous

communities, examine the issues specific to them, and take into account the

cultural sensitivities surrounding giving evidence.

Christine Milne, leader Australian Greens

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