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Published: 25 September 2019
Author: Penny Savidis

The Abuse Epidemic – What we knew and know

When I first started practising in abuse law about 12 years ago, I knew abuse was prevalent in some institutional settings. Certain children’s homes in certain areas, for example, seemed to have been infected by repeat offenders, some of whom seemed to disappear then reappear at other children’s homes, where they continued to offend.

What was not so apparent to me at the outset was the sheer extent of the abuse, and the wilful blindness, and at times complicity, of some of those in charge of institutions. Many institutions monumentally failed to take reasonable care for the welfare, safety, and supervision of vulnerable children in their care. There was woefully inadequate supervision.

There were pitiful systems, if any, in place to ensure that children were not abused. When complaints of abuse were brought to their attention, many institutions failed to deal with these complaints adequately or at all. Some of the insidious behaviour was from adults who abused children in their care who had reported abuse by others to them – priests who heard “confessions” of abuse from children about other offenders, and then went on to abuse the children themselves; principals at schools to whom teachers sent “unruly” children for discipline, whose discipline took a criminal turn; superintendents of children’s homes who were meant to supervise children’s homes and act upon complaints of abuse, but were instead abusing those who came to them for help.

And rather than be relegated to the distant past, abuse continues to rear its head, both in terms of the past catching up with the present, with Pell’s criminal trial and now special leave appeal to the High Court lodged last week, and in terms of current abuse being reported in the media, such as the suspension of a teacher at Bayside Christian College in Langwarrin charged with child sexual assault and grooming reported yesterday.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse highlighted the pervasiveness of abuse in institutional settings and the flawed approaches to dealing with complaints of abuse.

In its series “Sins of the seminary”, The Age has recently drawn upon the Commission’s work to drill down on certain parishes and dioceses and to report the paedophile rings in operation at the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne (Gerald Ridsdale, Kevin O’Donnell, Russel Vears, Paul David Ryan, John Day, Ronald Pickering and Wilfred Baker), Catholic Diocese of Ballarat (Gerald Fitzgerald, Robert Best, Gerald Ridsdale, Edward Dowlan/Ted Bales and Bernard Ring) and Salesian College Network (Julian Fox, Victor Rubeo, Frank Klep, David Rapson, Michael Aulsebrook and Frank de Dood).

The reported cases are repugnant, but they not altogether unusual as we have heard similar stories from clients of paedophile rings in other institutional settings.

The Royal Commission recommended legislative and other changes to the way children are protected from abuse. Some states have been quicker than others to implement these changes. For changes to the law to be effective, it is also up to the institutions to actively implement them – not to pledge to disregard the law, as Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Peter A Comensoli has done by stating that he would not break the confessional seal to report child abuse admissions made in the confessional. 

We must be forever vigilant, to ensure that the problems of the past are not replicated in the future.

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