Last week was National Children’s week, with a theme that children’s views and opinions should be respected, that they have a right to be heard.
While the week itself received little publicity, two major events occurred: first, a national apology to a large group of adults who, as children, had been sexually abused by institutions and then the transfer to Australia of a small group of severely ill children who had been detained on Nauru. The awful stories leading to these events need not have happened if children had been listened to. They weren’t.
On Monday Prime Minister Morrison gave a national apology to the victims of child sexual abuse. It was passionate and heartfelt. It was fully supported by the Opposition, a fine example of bipartisan politics. It gave assurances that services would be increased and that children would be listened to in the future. We must hold government to account to ensure that this will be so.
Important as the apology is, it brings with it the risk, as I have written before in Pearls and Irritations, that widespread sexual abuse of children is a thing of the past, that having sincerely apologised we can move on and leave these shameful events behind. A risk that it can be more comfortable to see child sexual abuse as occurring predominantly in institutions, including churches, instead of realising that it is far closer to us than we realise.
Justice MacLennan’s introduction to the Royal Commission’s final report, states: “The Royal Commission has been concerned with the sexual abuse of children within institutions. It is important to remember that, notwithstanding the problems we have identified, the number of children who are sexually abused in familial or other circumstances far exceeds those who are abused in institutions.”
We need to heed the Commissioner’s warning that most child sexual abuse does not occur in churches and institutions. The majority occurs closer to home, within families, extended families and from friends and acquaintances.
A major reason why child sexual abuse remains unrevealed for so long is that when a child has been brave enough to tell about the abuse, the child may not be believed or even punished for lying. When the abuser is a priest, or other church employee, how can a child’s story stand up against the denial of such a respected person? The same situation applies when the abuser is a relative, parent or family friend. All too often the anxious account of a frightened child receives scant attention.
We must be aware of the danger of ignoring, overlooking or just not taking a child’s allegation seriously.
On the same day as the national apology, 11 desperately ill children were taken from Nauru for urgent medical care in Australia.
Offshore detention has been a bipartisan policy, but it has been a policy weak on compassion and as a result children have suffered cruelly.
Over several years a small number of paediatricians and other health professionals who have been to Nauru have been vocal about the plight of these children. They have spoken repeatedly about a deterioration in the physical and mental health of these children. But the government policy of secrecy was largely successful. Journalists could not visit Nauru. Doctors who had visited or worked in the camps were threatened with prosecution if they spoke out. Meanwhile the mental health of the children continued to deteriorate. Children had spoken They had spoken through desperate drawings and paintings that reached us. But they were ignoredby those who had the power to help them.
Then several factors aligned. Several Liberal back benchers expressed concerns about the children. There was growing concern in the Opposition. The government appeared to have lost its majority in the Lower House. A respectful, factual petition signed by over 6,000 doctors from across Australia pleaded for these damaged children to receive urgent care. And so the most critically ill were removed to receive specialist care in Australia. At the time of writing there are still 52 children still on Nauru. They must not be forgotten.
The long-term offshore detention of refugee children may come to be seen as a dark period of our nations history. Liberal MP Julia Banks warned that the Australian government may have to apologise in coming years to the families it has sent to Nauru, just as Mr Morrison apologised to survivors of child sexual abuse this week.
If the voices of the sexually abused children had been heard there would have been no need for a national apology. If the desperate drawings of children in detention and the pleadings of specialists who understood their plight had been heard, there would have been no need for the suffering endured by the children detained on Nauru.
Kim Oates, a paediatrician, is an Emeritus Professor at Sydney University and a former President of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect