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Recent royal commissions have been a gross extravagance

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Wednesday, 3 January 2018

In my view there has been little tangible to show for the $550 million spent on the Royal Commission, and only governments would spend so much for such little benefit. (By comparison, for example, the vast Kidman empire was bought for less than $400 million, and Gina Reinhart and her Chinese partners will gain indefinite economic returns.)

In addition, a $4 billion national redress scheme has been proposed for victims but only minimal evidence would apparently be required to secure individual payouts of up to $200,000.

$4 billion is an astonishing amount. It is more than the Commonwealth's entire foreign aid budget and a bit under half of what it spends on universities. The sum seems incredible, especially given that most of the perpetrators are now either dead or very aged, and of no means. Any evidence is many decades old. The suggestion is that much of the burden for compensation (especially in respect of institutions that have closed down) could ultimately fall on taxpayers, especially at State level, as so-called "funders of last resort".


There seems to be very limited willingness to participate in the redress scheme and this is hardly surprising. Under the scheme, all Commonwealth institutions are automatic participants. For state institutions (numerically much more important) to participate, the state must have "opted in" to the scheme. Most of the States are equivocating about opting in, and are at best lukewarm about participation. South Australia announced in October that it was definitely not taking part. Non-government organisations, such as a church-operated orphanages, can only participate if the relevant state, and then their organisation, have "opted in".

Of all the major institutions, the Catholic Church reportedly is the only one to have given the scheme its unequivocal support from the time the Commission recommended it. The Church estimates it will be required to pay out $1 billion to survivors under the scheme.

The proposed redress scheme is reminiscent of various (modest by comparison) proposals to compensate the "Stolen Generations" despite a general lack of evidence of forced unwarranted removals to back up such claims. (The latest of these is a NSW Government scheme announced in December last year to "address the trauma and harm from forced removal of Aboriginal children by providing a reparations package worth more than $73 million to survivors". The scheme will not require "lengthy and arduous legal process".)

While victims of proven breaches of the law are entitled to fair compensation, schemes that dole out "compensation" in the absence of proof, risk becoming politically-motivated rorts of taxpayer money, that encourage ill-founded claims.

A final issue is that the Royal Commission also recommended that the Catholic Church overhaul its requirements for priestly celibacy and secrecy of the confessional. In both cases the Royal Commission seems to be over-stepping its bounds by veering from State law into Canon law and religious practice.

My personal view is that there is a link between celibacy and the extent of abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests and brothers. It, however, seems more appropriate to leave celibacy as an issue for the Catholic Church, which may in the fullness of time change the rules for other reasons (eg their effects on priestly vocations). Archbishop Fisher pointed out that child sex abuse had been a problem for religious institutions with and without celibate clergy.


The Royal Commission also recommended the mandatory reporting of child sex abuse disclosed in the confessional. Catholic Archbishops Hart and Fisher noted (validly it seems) that it was rare for perpetrators to use confession to admit to child abuse.

My view is that, even if it was less than rare for abusers to own up to their abuse in confession, mandatory reporting of such confessions to Police would be impossible to enforce. The sanctity of the religious confessional would be tossed aside for little benefit. In any case, regular confession seems to have largely disappeared from common practice among Catholics.

In all this, an under-discussed issue is that most sexual abuse of children occurs within the home. The Government is blamed if it does not intervene, and vulnerable children are left in dysfunctional homes. If it does remove children, the Government gets blamed for any ill-treatment that occurs in the institutional environment. It is a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't". In such a context, will anyone be keen to put their hand up to look after vulnerable children?

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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