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A Safe Place to Tell: Hope, Trust, and Meaning Lessons from the Australian Child Abuse Royal Commission




To protect their privacy and anonymity, all of the survivors whose words are provided below have been given a pseudonym.

As part of a PhD research project at University of New South Wales, Bec Moran interviewed 26 child sexual abuse survivors who made submissions to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Australian Royal Commission).

Many participants felt that their contact with the Australian Royal Commission was one of the most healing and meaningful experiences of their lives.

Larry describes what a private session meant for him:
I felt a sense of relief that I had been here. I’ve told them my story, and they haven’t dismissed me. They haven’t said, “oh, that’s not important, it wasn’t terribly…you’ve wasted our time.” I had the feeling that when I started to talk that they would say, “oh, ho-hum, that’s not terribly bad. So what?” But the fact that they gave me credibility, they accepted what I was saying, and put value onto what I was saying, I thought was wonderful. And that sense of relief that, yes, all those things that I feel have been vindicated. That, in a sense, I don’t need to minimise this anymore. I can just let it be. I can just deal with it as it is.

Alison had a similar experience:
[The Commissioner] turned her chair towards me and just listened. She just looked at me and listened. And I wasn’t interrupted and there was no objection and there was no, “Can we stop that there?” It was just these people who were part of our normal government system, and our normal judicial system, and who represent all of us, all of us in Australia, and who are doing this on behalf of the Australian government. It was like, I am sitting here and they are listening to me. They’re listening to my story and they’re acknowledging me. And I can’t tell you, I just cannot tell you how, for me, what a pivotal moment that was. I felt like I could have worn a cloak out there that said “I matter” on the back of it.

However, other people had experiences that were disappointing, distressing, and for some, traumatic. Jay had hoped that the Australian Royal Commission was somewhere that she could finally be heard, but instead felt that she was dismissed as unimportant, and that her abuse experiences were minimised.

Because I feel that nobody has heard me. They’ve listened without hearing. They’ve heard it as sort of just waffle words. They don’t hear it as anything important, or anything that they need to actually react to. And so, I am now investing enormous amounts of emotional energy into my latest attempt to tell.

Hope, trust, and meaning

Many survivors have historically been disbelieved, had their experiences of abuse minimised, and felt blamed for what happened to them.

A number of research participants said that they expected the Australian Royal Commission would be a relatively safe place to tell their stories, without exposing themselves to frightening legal consequences, or the aggressively sceptical responses they expected from the criminal justice system, institutions and their legal teams. Larry figured that speaking to the Australian Royal Commission might be difficult and exposing, but in his assessment it was ‘safe enough’, and worth the risk.

I knew that the Commission weren’t going to attack me, but I knew that I was exposing myself and I felt a little bit vulnerable about that.

Claire said that she carefully considered what she knew about the Australian Royal Commission from the media coverage, and how this impacted on her decision to make a submission.

I think we found that watching the Royal Commission on the TV or reading it on the Internet, we found that they were really honest and really just upfront with what shame does to a person or why shame is part of trauma, and I feel like they were really brave at putting those messages out there because really you don’t hear about trauma in the media a lot and I think we felt really – I guess maybe encouraged in a way to actually face it head on because the Royal Commission were being so brave really and so professional in the way they approached all of everything they did.

Jasmine, who knows that her perpetrators can still hurt her, valued the option of anonymity.

I think because my commission statement I had an option of being anonymous and sending it in, I had an option of giving information that was not necessarily going to damage me, but could kind of give a voice to some of the other kids that were involved that got hurt.

Like many survivors who have been told by perpetrators and others ‘don’t worry, you can trust me, you are safe here’ only to discover that this is not true, Jasmine struggled to figure out whether the Australian Royal Commission really was safe for her, especially considering the links her main perpetrator had within government and law enforcement. Telling her story was very important to Jasmine, but also very difficult and frightening. Jasmine was fortunately well supported by a psychiatrist she trusts and spent time in a private hospital while she prepared for her submission, and afterwards while she recovered from the impact of stirring up memories and fear.

The decision whether to participate was often informed by the survivor’s assessment of whether they will be safe enough, but also whether there is enough hope of a meaningful outcome – personally, and on the broader scale of systems change and better futures – to justify the personal cost.

History is littered with examples of public inquiries that did not lead to meaningful change. Survivors are drawn to participate for a mixture of personal reasons such as needing to be heard and believed, and social or political reasons such as wanting to contribute to a safer future for others. If an Inquiry asks survivors to commit to the personal costs of making a submission, it is important that the Inquiry does not let them down.

Many of the recommendations of the Australian Royal Commission have been or are being implemented by State and Federal governments, including changes to legislation, child safety, criminal justice, civil litigation and the National Redress Scheme. There is little doubt that this Inquiry led to meaningful change, although for many, that change has been too slow, too late and not comprehensive enough.

As part of a PhD research project at University of New South Wales, Bec Moran interviewed 26 child sexual abuse survivors who made submissions to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Australian Royal Commission). This is the second in a 3-part series exploring the lessons from Rebecca’s interviews.

Because the scope of all public inquiries needs to be limited to make it manageable, certain groups and individuals are excluded. It was no different in the Child Abuse Royal Commission and failure to be included within the Terms of Reference was understandably upsetting for many survivors. For survivors whose experiences do fit within the Terms of Reference, that Inquiry’s failure to enable survivors to work with the Inquiry can also result in exclusion. Despite the Royal Commission being flexible and responsive, the complexities of people’s lives and abuse experiences at times made this challenging.

In an interview conducted as part of the PhD project Charlie described the impact of not fitting within the requirements of the Australian Royal Commission. Charlie explained the ways that this mirrored the dynamics of her previous experiences of abuse, marginalisation, and institutionalisation. She found the process of making a written submission extremely distressing, due to the ongoing impacts of abuse and trauma, as well as the daily challenges of living with physical disabilities. She found the explicit questions on the Royal Commission’s written submission template very triggering, and she started to feel that she would not be believed by the Australian Royal Commission if she could not provide enough clear and accurate detail.

Charlie talked about her difficulties in separating out her multiple perpetrators in her memory to fit the structure of the form. Remembering traumatic events can be complicated: survivors might have been hyperaroused, dissociated and ‘spaced out’ at the time of the abuse. The extreme stress experienced at the time of the abuse can affect the brain’s ability to store memory in the form which enables the person to provide a clear chronological narrative. Often, survivors’ memories are vague, generalised, fragmented, sensory, and behavioural, and not available to conscious recall and therefore difficult to retrieve (Blue Knot Foundation 2018; Freyd 1994; van der Kolk 1995; Bremer & Marmar 2002). Remembering can be so painful that survivors need to dissociate to manage the distress, making it extremely difficult to present a neat, time-lined account of abuse experiences.

Charlie’s experience serves as a reminder that the impacts of trauma can provide significant barriers to participation and highlights how crucial it is for survivors to access appropriate support.

Everything with all of my experiences were extremely traumatic and mixed. They wanted us to put it into one institution, one abuser, one perpetrator and one of everything. Then the whole form was set up in that way. So if you were trying to explain multiple perpetrators and multiple institutions, and multiple dates, and multiple issues, the form wasn’t set up in the way it could accommodate that. It made the form impossible to fill out.

Charlie felt unsupported by the Australian Royal Commission and was re-traumatised when trying to complete the form on her own. Although deeply distressed and physically unwell, Charlie was supporting a number of family members who were also trying to fill out their forms before the final deadline, placing her under even greater strain. Some are living with the impacts of institutionalisation, such as homelessness, and problems with reading and writing. Charlie finished her written submission despite these difficulties, only to be told that she had missed the deadline and it would not be accepted.

It was just impossible. It just became that way for me, and then I couldn’t even fill it out. There was no support to get it done. It was almost like it just traumatised me so much that I became so unwell from doing it that I couldn’t even get it in on the due date. I couldn’t even function well enough to know when the due date was in the end because I was so traumatised by the whole process of having to be asked such intense questions and dig up so much trauma.

…being told, “No, we’re not even going to accept your submission.” That was like for me, I went through a lot of self-hate around that. It just compounded all of the trauma. Because there won’t be another Royal Commission, it’s done. Do you know what I mean? There’s not going to be another way to do that truth telling. And in a safe way.

Nathan also felt that he didn’t fit with the Australian Royal Commission’s requirements, which meant that he too felt unheard. Nathan was disappointed that the Australian Royal Commission couldn’t find a way for him to speak from his experience as an abuse survivor, and as someone with significant professional expertise in the area of institutional responses to abuse. Nathan wanted to have two private sessions, where he could separate his experience as a survivor from his experience working in religious institutions.

Nathan sent many emails to the Australian Royal Commission, because he wanted to share what he believed was valuable information and experience, but he felt that this information was not recorded or used in a respectful way. Emails allowed Nathan to work around the continuing impacts of early childhood abuse on his thinking and communication. Nathan was frustrated because he felt the Australian Royal Commission’s expectations of what survivors would be like, and what survivors would wish to contribute, did not have a space for him.

Veronica and Jay both also felt that they didn’t quite fit, due to the nature of their abuse experiences, and the identities of the people who had hurt them. Veronica felt that her experience of being sexually abused by a woman went against the Australian Royal Commission’s expectation that perpetrators would be men – a feeling that Veronica has had throughout her life, especially when trying to access counselling and support.

Jay talked about the difficulties of separating abuse within the family from abuse (and responses to disclosure) connected to institutions. This caused Jay to feel that some parts of her experiences were unimportant, as they were not of interest to the Australian Royal Commission.

I felt a little bit like I was taking up someone else’s place…that because the large majority of my abuse was the family and the paedophile ring, even though the paedophile ring did have like, a GP and whatever, but within the terms of reference, I felt that, because mine was so little, in terms of the terms of reference, that I was taking up someone else’s spot, who’d been abused by the church for the whole entire time of their abuse history.

Jasmine described a similar frustration.

In my opinion, not only did they need a Royal Commission into institutional abuse, they need to do a Royal Commission into family stuff. You can talk about ‘that’, but you can’t talk about ‘that’. And I guess as well, because I was trying to show them that there is sometimes collaboration between those two worlds.

Participants like Larry who felt like they had been able to tell their whole story, in a setting where they fitted and belonged, described this as one of the most meaningful aspects of their experience.

The fact that I’d been to the Royal Commission for me was like my red badge of courage, if you like. “Here, I’ve been, I’ve done that” and I could tell the other guys about it and would feel that in some ways vindicated but also supported because I’m like the rest of you. I have nothing to hide here now. I’ve told my story. I’m just as ordinary as everyone else here. My story is just like yours. I am the same as you. And I found that really terribly reassuring. That was a wonderful experience for me. I didn’t see myself as an odd person. All my life I’d seen myself as an odd person, as a loner, an outsider, someone who wasn’t really acceptable. But, strange as it may seem, being acknowledged by the Royal Commission made me part of a group of survivors that I felt good about. And I felt as though I now belonged somewhere. I now belonged to a group of people who have become survivors, who will now live their lives in a different way. Yeah, so it was … So that sense of belonging was really quite an important aspect for me.

However, many of the 26 survivors I interviewed said that they had trouble fitting everything they needed to say into the time allocated for a private session. Understanding that this was just a practical issue did little to ease the feelings of not being properly heard. Some participants asked for more time and were allowed to talk for longer, but others did not know more time was an option, did not feel able to ask, and left their private sessions feeling they had not said everything they needed to, which undermined the healing potential of the Australian Royal Commission for them.

Understanding the complexities of people’s lives and abuse experiences, creating ways for participants to make complaints or requests, and providing flexibility wherever possible can go a long way toward delivering a fair and accessible Inquiry. The impacts of abuse often mean that survivors feel like they do not fit, matter, or belong. It is crucial that an Inquiry charged with responding to child abuse does not repeat that message.

Blue Knot Foundation 2018 The Truth of Memory and The Memory of Truth: Different types of Memory and the Significance for Trauma Stavropoulos P.A.& Kezelman C.A. Available here
Bremner, J.D. and Marmar, C.R., 2002. Trauma, memory, and dissociation, American Psychiatric Association Publishing.
Freyd, J.J., 1994. Betrayal trauma: Traumatic amnesia as an adaptive response to childhood abuse. Ethics & Behaviour, 4(4), pp.307-329.
Van der Kolk, B.A. and Fisler, R., 1995. Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: Overview and exploratory study. Journal of traumatic stress, 8(4), pp.505-525.

This is the third and final article in the series published in Breaking Free drawn from the PhD of Bec Moran into lessons from the Australian child abuse Royal Commission

In interviews conducted with 26 adult survivors of child sexual abuse, participants described a variety of reasons for engaging with the Australian Royal Commission. Many participants identified that they saw the Commission as a place where they could not only tell someone about their experiences of abuse, but also about its impacts. This is in contrast to criminal justice and civil law processes which tend to focus on the details of the abuse with little space for survivors to discuss the impact of abuse within their lives. That’s because these processes are intended to either prove or disprove that abuse occurred. In this case the survivor becomes simply a witness, required to provide a coherent and credible account of what happened.

The Australian Royal Commission had status and authority. This supported participants’ sense that they were contributing meaningfully to a collective historical record. Some of these contributions were made in private sessions in which survivors told their story to one or more Commissioners. The Commissioners’ wealth of life experience carried an aura of importance and being well informed, and many participants reported that Commissioners formed authentic connections with them during private sessions in ways that amplified the healing impacts of being heard and believed.

Jake describes the powerful impact of being able to tell his story in a setting which was formal and conveyed a sense of seriousness, yet still remained somehow human and warm, for him.

They asked genuinely caring questions around, “Okay, well, you said this but is there more to it than that?” And then there was a lot of, “You seem like a smart lad you know. Have you observed anything? Learnt anything? Is there anything you would like to do differently?” And they listened to all of that with great genuine interest and care. And that was no different in the final interaction which was my private session.

And I have said to Commissioners, I have said to Royal Commission lawyers that I have worked with, to federal police and State police that I have worked with through the Commission process. They [the Commissioners] have listened to thousands and thousands and thousands of horrendous stories and how they have kept their compassion through all of that and their sincerity and their genuine care and interest. It was just a thing to behold because I can’t understand how they did it. And it really was that breathtaking. As a survivor it was that breathtaking.

Jake also commented on the relief he felt from being believed, and from feeling that the Commission recognised how difficult the impacts of abuse had been for him.
In contrast, Bettina felt attacked, disbelieved, and as if she didn’t matter. After a very positive experience in her private session, Bettina agreed to participate in a public hearing, in which an interrogative and aggressive approach resulted in a frightening, humiliating experience. Despite the best of intentions, for Bettina, the Australian Royal Commission was yet another traumatic attempt for her to tell, which compounded the negative impacts of her abuse.

That was extreme trauma that day [having personal letters exposed in the public hearing]. They just kept letting this guy go on and on and talking as if I was liar, and that I’d said things that were untrue. And then you had the Counsel Assisting the Commission saying, “Oh what do we do here? We’ve got a prior inconsistent statement.” And I’m thinking, ‘no you haven’t.’ And it was like the Commission had decided that I’d lied. And I ended up standing up. I mean, my hands were wringing like … twisting … my hands were twisting and I’d been obviously distressed earlier, embracing my eldest son, and it was horrible for him too to see that done to me. And the other survivor witnesses were sitting beside and behind me, and they all saw. And they were all horrified… It was really horrendously distressing and the commissioners had watched it go on…

And when they rang me on that day and were talking to me, they said, “We heard how institutions attack witnesses, but we’ve never seen it happening before our eyes.” And I thought ‘Well, it wasn’t just before your eyes, you were in control of it. You could have stopped it at any time.’ But they were so bound up in their normal legalistic protocol, that, although they were supposedly there to … we were there to… for healing, and to assist them in their work. Actually, we were treated … you know. I wasn’t treated that way.

Bettina experienced debilitating trauma responses after her experience at the public hearing, and many months later was still struggling to cope with the impacts.

I was spending most of my time lying of the floor with my phone and computer within reach and a bottle of water. And I couldn’t tell them what I needed. That was what they were saying, “What do you need?” And I thought, “You’ve had all of this the evidence before you, what it does and how the institution should have good follow-up and good support for anyone who’s been victimised, and all the rest of it.” And when it happens within your own organisation, that’s not what you’re providing me. You’re asking me to tell you what I need. And I just felt, in the end I think said, “I feel like I’ve been hit by a car, run over. I’ve managed to crawl over to the gutter. And that’s pretty much all I can do.” So, it was horrendous. It was like I’d trusted, yet again. I’d trusted in the Commission. And after trusting in people again I’ve had everything just wiped away.

Survivors are accustomed to reading their environments closely, in order to evaluate how safe or unsafe they are in each moment. The way the Australian Royal Commission connected with survivors sent important messages about their worth and safety: Phone calls returned quickly told them, ‘You are important to us’. Carefully selected venues and the provision of cakes and cups of tea said, ‘We want you to be comfortable’. Attentive and compassionate staff said, ‘We see you. We believe you. We care about what happened to you, and we care what happens to you now.’ Conversely, a hostile public hearing told Bettina, “You were wrong to think you could trust us.’

A public inquiry must decide whether its goal is to gather the information necessary to make change, whether to attempt to provide some healing and justice for participants through the process itself -or, ambitiously, whether to combine these two goals. For survivors who participate in public inquiries, these possibilities are inextricably linked. If they provide evidence in a hostile environment, they are unlikely to feel valued. If they provide evidence in a warm and caring environment, yet see that after the inquiry nothing changes, they are unlikely to feel valued. Many survivors are driven to participate in public inquiries in the hope that they can help protect others from abuse, and contribute to a vision of a better future for people affected by trauma.

Whether the Australian Royal Commission succeeds at creating meaningful and lasting change on the issue of child abuse remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that being believed, feeling seen and heard, being treated in a way which conveys that the person matters, and having someone in a position of authority communicate that what happened to them was not okay and was not their fault, can be a transformative experience for survivors. In contrast, interactions which mirror other invalidating, adversarial, or skeptical responses to disclosure compound the impacts of abuse and subject survivors to further trauma.

As Larry says so eloquently:

I have a very clear image of Commissioner Atkinson talking to me, and it’s a bit like the father, if you like. A very generous, open father saying, “I understand what you’ve told me, and you are an acceptable person.” That’s what I heard. “I understand what happened to you, and I understand that you are an acceptable person. That you are okay.” And that’s what I walked away with.

To me that was really quite profound because it meant that all the things that I’d been believing that I wasn’t an okay person, that I was second-rate, that I really was a blight on humanity were being challenged. And he was the first person that actually really challenged them. And he was a person with status. A Royal Commissioner, that’s a pretty, you know, in my mind that was a really high-status person telling me I’m okay. And that was really powerful for me. And so from that I took away the sense that, yes, I can move on from here, that I can do something…. I walked away feeling reassured. I walked away feeling of some value. And I walked away feeling that, as a human being, that I did have some potential that I could make my life better.

It was important for many survivors participating in the Commission to feel that the severity and pain of the impacts of child abuse was understood, and acknowledged that they had been telling the truth all along. These acknowledgements carried another message too: that the Australian Royal Commission recognised the wrongdoing of perpetrators and those who had helped to conceal abuse.

While recognition cannot undo the harms of child abuse, it can provide some sense of fairness, restoration or justice. For people who, as children, were often made to feel responsible for what had happened to them, and that their suffering was not important enough for bystanders to intervene, the recognition of innocence and suffering provided by a dedicated, courageous Inquiry sends an important message about survivors’ value as members of the community. It tells survivors, “you matter to us’.

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