The proposed royal commission into child abuse is likely to disappoint many of the victims pushing for its establishment and achieve very little, particularly if it is like the Irish Ryan Commission.
The scope of the proposed commission is huge. By proposing to investigate child abuse across the country it will involve 7 states, two territories, myriads of government departments as well as institutions run by religious and charitable organisations. It won’t be able to hear more than a fraction of complaints and there are unlikely to be many, if any, successful prosecutions as a result.
If it is like the Ryan Commission it is also likely to find that the caravan has moved on and that most of the bodies involved have changed their practices and that the epidemic of child abuse is in the past. At the same time, what recommendations it makes will do little to prevent child abuse in the future.
Again, if it is like the Ryan Commission it will not be complete for over a decade (the Ryan Commission was established in 1999 and reported in 2009).
In a practical sense much more is likely to be achieved by limited inquiries, such as that set up by the O’Farrell government to inquire into allegations of abuse by Catholic clergy in the Hunter region.
The commission needed to be extensive as the alternative was an inquiry into a specific area, such institutions run by the Catholic Church, which would have turned into a witch hunt, ignoring the institutional failings of other denominations and organisations.
Over the years I have been horrified to read of instances of abuse in state supervised foster homes where in some cases very young children have contracted sexually transmitted diseases and been returned to the foster families where they have contracted them.
There is something that inheres in the Catholic Church that has made it institutionally incapable of dealing with the victims of abuse, demonstrated by the international reach of such issues from Australia, to the USA, to Ireland, but they are not the only institution.
And while public attention is focused on them, often through a lens of schadenfreude, the scope of the problem is distorted.
So, if it gives perspective to the extent of the problem, that will be one benefit. But apart from that it is hard to see many.
The Bringing Them Home inquiry, reporting in 1997, was a wide ranging inquiry with more limited terms of reference. While it has provided another, much disputed, strand of guilt to the national story, it achieved very little. None of the stolen generation has received compensation, and the situation for many aborigines living in settlements is still dire poverty and deprivation.
These reports have a habit of being fertile for writers and publishers, but in the end, judged by the practical benefits they bring, being little more than acts of public prurience.