The unbearable lightness of seeing

Georgie Crozier thought she was mentally ready to investigate child sexual abuse in the churches. As a nurse and midwife, she had coped with cases of rape and incest, and heard heart-wrenching stories. But nothing could prepare her for the sheer horror or scale of what happened to thousands of young Victorians in orphanages, schools and church settings over decades.

Georgie Crozier thought she was mentally ready to investigate child sexual abuse in the churches. As a nurse and midwife, she had coped with cases of rape and incest, and heard heart-wrenching stories. But nothing could prepare her for the sheer horror or scale of what happened to thousands of young Victorians in orphanages, schools and church settings over decades.

As chairwoman of the Victorian inquiry into how the churches handled child sexual abuse, she hid her emotions behind a mask of formality through the long months of testimony from victims, advocates, experts and religious leaders. Just occasionally her irritation at some witnesses' prevarication slipped out.

"It's very difficult seeing people you know sitting across the table from you, men showing photos of themselves as boys," she says. "But I don't think it was nearly as difficult as it was for them coming before us, and that kept me focused: this is so important for so many people - we just have to get this right."

The inquiry's 750-page report, tabled on Wednesday, made 15 recommendations across five areas: criminal law, making the church legally accountable, setting up an independent but church-funded tribunal to investigate claims and determine compensation, and better prevention and monitoring.

It particularly savaged the Catholic Church, but - as Andrea Coote noted in her speech to Parliament - this was because it was the focus of the vast majority of testimony. Also, as the report makes clear, the members were often unimpressed by the testimony of Catholic leaders.

Although the consistent testimony of the church was that the problems were largely fixed and those to blame were all previous leaders, the report found that the current leadership had minimised and trivialised the problem, kept the community in ignorance, and saw child sexual abuse as a "short-term embarrassment".

They did not see the problems as raising any questions about the church's own culture and had developed "a sliding morality". The report notably exempted Geelong priest Kevin Dillon, who has worked with dozens of victims.

The inquiry also led to 135 new police investigations into child sexual abuse, most from submissions and because Taskforce Sano attached to the inquiry spoke to victims after they testified.

After launching the report, the six members of the family and community development committee - Liberals Crozier, Coote, Nick Wakeling, Labor's Frank McGuire and Bronwyn Halfpenny, and National David O'Brien - were released from a strictly observed commitment to public silence, and each shared something of their experience with Fairfax Media.

All found it harrowing, but also rewarding because they felt that at the end of it they would be able to make a difference.

Crozier was as shocked as anyone when then-premier Ted Baillieu announced in April 2012 that there would be a parliamentary inquiry and that her family and community development committee - already busy with two important inquiries - would run it.

"I knew it was going to be big, but I'm not sure I anticipated just how big it would become. What became very evident were the recurrent themes, the very similar stories, and that was very convincing to us," she says.

How strong the ripple effect was, from victims to families and others, also shocked the MPs. Each was approached with personal stories by people in their electorates and even in the Parliament building.

"It did affect me emotionally. You couldn't help but be touched, but I knew it was a really important job, so I tried to be as professional as I could to give these people the confidence and dignity to come before us," Crozier says.

The committee and staff worked hard behind the scenes. They showed witnesses the committee room with its portraits and chandeliers, gave them a debriefing room for before and after the testimony, showed them where everyone would sit, and warned them that police and the media would be present. Andrea Coote was surprised at how proprietary ancillary staff, including ushers, security people and Hansard reporters, were about the inquiry.

Deputy chairman Frank McGuire told Parliament the fortitude of those who testified was inspiring, their courage was humbling. "Silver-haired men cradled photographs of themselves as schoolboys with sunshine smiles. A middle-aged woman presented a happy snap from her first Holy Communion depicting a young bride of Christ. Each memento was a cry from the heart, yearning for innocence lost."

McGuire told Fairfax Media: "Our duty was to match that fortitude and come out the other end with practical change that would make systemic generational difference."

The response from survivors, advocates, lawyers, the Catholic and other churches suggests they achieved this, but the committee members are eager to have it confirmed. A large part of the past 18 months of their lives has been dedicated to this inquiry and the responsibility has sometimes lain heavily.

Nevertheless they are confident this will be a lasting contribution, which Crozier expects will interest the now-sitting royal commission on child abuse in institutions. Coote believes this report will shape the debate - especially on the Catholic Church and its culture - for years. "I think the gauntlet that's been thrown down to them is going to be something the entire community is analysing and it was honest reporting - this is what we saw. Anyone that doubts it only needs to read the victims' accounts and they will also be calling for cultural change."

She says the recommendations give the church a framework in which they need not lose face, but can move away from the rhetoric of the past.

Coote found the stories less harrowing than most because, as parliamentary secretary of community services, she deals daily with dreadful situations of family abuse or relinquishing children. "Personally, it didn't upset me. It was unexpectedly enlightening because I watched these people come in on their heels and walk out on their toes." Apprehensive survivors found themselves being treated with respect and dignity. Their reaction gave Coote the courage to make certain that those accountable were put in the spotlight, she says. "I feel a huge responsibility for the people who are vulnerable. In Parliament that is one of the better things we can do."

Asked if she felt religious spokespeople underestimated her, Coote says they underestimated the whole committee and its powers.

"There's a perception out there that being a member of Parliament is not a noble profession. I think that [Wednesday] showed it is. I think that was the underestimation of the entire community, I don't think they realised we had the courage, the tenacity and the intellect to do it. Mind you, we had an enormous amount of help."

Staff grew from four to 19, and advisers included former Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent. The members had some robust disagreements along the way - though not along party lines - and Crozier says she has never been on a committee with such unity of purpose and focus. Nick Wakeling says the members were very mindful that it was a joint committee and beyond politics - they did not want a Coalition report and a minority opposition report.

Bronwyn Halfpenny says: "We did get angry with each other from time to time, but everyone genuinely wanted to do the right thing. It wasn't a matter of making a name for yourself or worrying about what the government was thinking. I am proud and pleased that I was part of this."

David O'Brien, the only National on the committee, visibly relished the occasional battles with church leaders, but is equally aware of his duty to them.

"The hardest thing was the victims' testimonies, without a doubt, and the serious burden that is placed on us as MPs making laws," he says. "But ultimately the emotion steeled us for the task we had to do, and I hope we have been fair to all, because it's important not to let the emotion of the people you hear cloud your judgment about others. We wanted to make recommendations that would be acceptable to all, including those who might be said to be the subject of the condemnation."

Mental health experts now know that prolonged exposure to victims of trauma can create its own trauma and psychological damage. The royal commissioners are following strict guidelines on how much time they can spend hearing victims, and the Victorian inquiry provided counselling and psychological support for the members and staff.

Halfpenny asks, how do you know you're all right? Another committee member, adamant that coping had not been an issue, nevertheless choked up when answering the question.

As McGuire observes, survivors who testified said afterwards they felt unburdened, "but there's an element of transferral. The evidence was harrowing and the process was corrosive to your spirit. You had to make sure you weren't overwhelmed. Frank Vincent gave us wise advice: he said be careful about stress, be careful what you drink, get exercise."

McGuire went home after the sessions, hugged his daughter and played kick-to-kick with his sons. Wakeling was acutely aware that his nine-year-old son was the age of many of the victims.

He says people often work in child protection only for a short time because they feel powerless. "The stories were horrific, but at least I felt I had the power to do something about it, and that was what was driving me.

"It was a cry for help for many, so we needed to come up with clear recommendations that provided relief for survivors, but also that a government of any persuasion could implement. That's really important."

If nothing else, he says, he is proud that it was this committee that got senior leaders of the Catholic Church to admit for the first time that it protected paedophiles.

The committee was under the microscope from the start, especially as many people thought it should be a judicial rather than parliamentary inquiry, Wakeling says, but in fact politicians were exactly the right people.

"As members of Parliament we are used to engaging with people of all walks of life, that's our strength. We don't judge people on their status or on afflictions in their lives. We were empathetic, we listened, we could take that information and come up with a powerful document we hope will stand the test of time but, more importantly, can be picked up by other jurisdictions, nationally and internationally, as a potential road map. And if we've achieved that, I'll walk away really proud."

McGuire likes to work in the handsome parliamentary library. He sits at the same desk, looking out the window at the spire of St Patrick's Cathedral, the grand neo-Gothic Catholic edifice, and the Australian flag on a pole, "so this is all about duty. This is the sense of history and institution, and the balance and tension between church and state," he says.

McGuire, intriguingly, received double inspiration from Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Melbourne from 1996 to 2001, and the most eminent witness the committee heard. If he glances up from his library desk he sees a bust of Sir Thomas More - according to the inscription "lawyer, author, saint and martyr, the king's good servant but God's first," presented to Parliament by Pell.

But his more direct inspiration was his determination to get the cardinal to make admissions on the record, "in the Hansard of the Parliament of Victoria".

It was a great moment for McGuire when on Monday, May 27 he put to the cardinal: "Do you agree that the Catholic Church placed paedophile priests above the law?" The question and the reply, "in some cases, unfortunately" were emblazoned across the front page of The Age.

Next will be the formal government response, which it must produce in six months. But the report has already had very positive responses from both sides of Parliament.

"The recommendations are absolutely doable," Crozier says. "I think it's a blueprint for other states, and I think the royal commission should really look at what we have done because a lot of the issues are going to be very similar right around the country."

One of the big winners from this process, several members felt, has been Parliament itself, which has been seen to do a thorough and intelligent report on a vexed subject. "Because people's view of Parliament is the two dogs barking in question time, people have less faith in the institution," McGuire says. "We all knew it was important to get this right, what's in the public's best interest."

If sex abuse has damaged one institution, the church, he suggests, it might help restore a measure of trust in another, the Parliament.

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