There Shouldn't Be A Deadline On Justice

29/09/2015 8:42 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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It's a rare thing to feel encouraged when it comes to a story on institutional sex abuse.

However, that was my immediate reaction upon hearing the news that the prestigious Geelong College is admitting such acts took place within its hallowed hallways, and is imploring victims to come forward so it can help to repair the damage done decades ago.

No denials. No stone-walling. Just good old-fashioned owning up.

Perhaps the Royal Commission's recommendations on addressing the needs of survivors of sexual abuse are already having an effect, scarcely a week after they were released; findings which deem that we, as a country, must now act as one to end it.

As someone who has long fought for the rights of abuse victims, I know how much the Commission's work will mean to them. So many have suffered for so long in silence, but the Commission's work proves they have finally been heard.

Rather than a 'cookie cutter', umbrella response to the issue, the Commission showed a real appreciation for the unique nature of survivors' circumstances. This includes a recommendation for a redress scheme to tangibly recognise the severity of the hurt and injury sustained by a child. But perhaps the most significant aspect of the recommendations is that, at long last, the archaic statute of limitations period be removed. Retrospectively.

This was what had allowed alleged rapists, and paedophiles, not to mention the institutions which employed and protected them, to keep survivors of abuse from receiving compensation.

The Victorian government can hold its head high on this. For them, this is an outright vindication of their compassionate stance in removing statutory time limits in historical cases of child sex abuse. For other state governments, however, like Queensland, whose own departments continue to hide behind the limitation provisions to deprive survivors their day in court, there is no longer an excuse.

Here's an example: a teacher is found guilty today in relation to sexual assaults against children in his care that occurred at an institution 20 years ago. The institution was aware of the complaints at the time, but chose to do nothing, and the teacher remained employed.

In the aftermath of the successful conviction, the survivors of the abuse bring compensation claims against the institution, and the rapist. As the law generally stands, the survivors would have to do this inside the statute of limitations, in most states and territories, within three years of the alleged assault, or by their 21st birthday if they were minors. The burden is then on the claimant to overcome this hurdle. That's why institutions and perpetrators have been able to shield themselves so well from having to pay compensation. To countless victims, and members of the public, it's unconscionable.

I must emphasise that the survivors I know are not asking that their claims simply be accepted. Every institution has a right to put a claimant's case to proof, and to give evidence. All survivors are asking for is a level playing field in which to have their claims heard. Ironically, what has prevented claimants complying with statutory time limits is the systemic failures that allowed the abuse to occur in the first place, and secondly that prevented the reporting. This is grossly unfair. Currently survivors know that coming forward means reliving the horrors of the past, and given the obstacles that are placed in their way things like with statutory time limits, only a small percentage have had the courage to pursue civil remedies.

Significantly, but not surprisingly, the Royal Commission has also recommended that legislation should be introduced to impose a non-delegable that will ensure institutions are even more compelled to protect the most vulnerable in their care.

Despite the Royal Commission's recommendations, though, some may still argue that amending the law will result in "floodgates" opening, and that the financial viability of religious and educational institutions will be placed at risk. Essentially what they are arguing is that they should not be left with the financial burden of supporting the survivors of abuse that they allowed to occur. Instead, these institutions expect that the cost of caring for the survivors will be borne by the tax payer. Why, as tax payers, should we be paying for the sins of institutions which allowed rapists and paedophiles to destroy lives?

Now is the time for governments of all Australian states and territories to act; to follow Victoria's lead, and to change their legislation, so that the wounds of those who have endured such dreadful mistreatment can finally begin to heal.

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