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Apology to Victim and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Tags: Child Abuse, Children and Young People, Commission of Inquiry

Cassy O'Connor MP | Greens Leader 

Mr Speaker -

Joining us here in this Parliament, across the hall in the Long Room, out on the lawns, over at Elizabeth St Pier and on screens across the country, are Tasmanians - victim survivors and people who love them - who have been abjectly failed by successive administrations and governments of every colour.

On behalf of the Greens, Dr Woodruff and I, and all the people we represent, I want to say to you, our fellow Tasmanians, how deeply, unreservedly sorry we are for the terrible lifelong pain you endure.

You have been grievously wronged and for that we are sorry.

To victim survivors, we are beyond sorry your innocence was snatched away, your trust broken, your childhoods cut short. 

We grieve with you for all that has been lost through layer on layer of betrayal; betrayal of your vulnerability and your trust.

While we can never know the vastness and depth of your suffering, we hear you when you tell us that what happened to you as children and teenagers has afflicted every day of your adult lives.

We know that some of you are still children, traumatized, looking for answers and for help.  We want to help.  All of us in here want to help.

The Greens in this place have always fought for the rights and safety of children and young people, always, and always will, but it was not, has never been, enough. 

I am truly sorry for any and every part we have played in failing you and those who love you.

Rosalie and I feel and accept your anger towards all of us across political boundaries who could and should have done more.

You sure do have the right to be angry, and you don’t need anyone in this Parliament to tell you that.

Every child has the right to feel loved, safe and wanted but you were not kept safe; not by all the adults around you, not by those you had a right to trust, and not by the State of Tasmania which – too often – placed you directly in harm’s way.

Successive Tasmanian Governments put vulnerable children and adolescents ….

In classrooms with pedophiles dressed up as teachers,

in foster homes out of sight and mind, and in danger,

in youth detention overseen by predators with too much power, too few managers and senior bureaucrats who cared enough or had the courage to speak for you, and too little government oversight,

in public hospitals, where you were admitted to get better, and were instead preyed upon by those your parents unknowingly entrusted you to.

To your parents, we are so, so sorry your trust too was betrayed and your child was not kept safe in the arms of the State.

As a society, we put some of you as children in places like the Royal Derwent Psychiatric Hospital or Willow Court for the best part of two centuries, until a little over two decades ago.

Behind the high walls of that bleak institution, your disability or mental fragility – or the fact you were a teenage girl locked up on a charge of ‘moral mania’ - left you extremely vulnerable to cruelty and neglect, and sexual abuse.

For too long, all of you who were so terribly hurt were made near invisible by the State.

No formal acknowledgement or acceptance of responsibility by those who should have protected you.

No words of sorrow. No commitment to save other children from the trauma you feel, the shockwaves to your very soul that you endure, mostly suffering in silence, each and every day.

Today, this Parliament, on behalf of the State of Tasmania, acknowledges your great suffering, gives its sincere, heartfelt apology and commits to doing much, much better by this island’s children and young people from here.

Many of the people watching, Mr Speaker, will rightly be cynical about what today’s apology really means beyond the words we say.

Although it is often said words are cheap, they do matter. Words spoken in truth and open-heartedness signal feeling and intent.

Words like ‘Sorry’ can have deep meaning and provide a measure of healing, but actions always matter more than any words.

The actions this Government and this Parliament take from here really matter – to victim survivors, their friends and families, and those who grieve the unimaginable loss of a child.

It won’t bring their sons or daughters back, but the actions we ultimately take to protect children from harm in future will bring some comfort to those who have lost someone precious and beloved.

So too, the tangible response to the evidence and recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry will be what really matters to whistleblowers who had the courage to speak truth to power, in order to protect children … those brave State Servants who recognised and acted on their moral duty to keep kids safe, often at huge personal cost.

The actions this Parliament takes following this Apology has to encompass the laws it enacts, the policies parties in government take to elections and implement, and the scrutiny applied to those laws and policies by non-government MPs.

On behalf of the Greens, I want to assure everyone listening and watching today that we regard this as a sacred trust. 

We will never, ever abandon Tasmania’s children and young people. Prioritising their future is core to who we are.

We advocated strongly for, and have watched closely, the Commission of Inquiry. We’ve been moved by the courage and testimony of victim survivors and whistleblowers. Equally, we’ve been revolted by the litany of failures on the part of so many arms of the State.

We are so thankful to those who spoke their truth. Such bravery, Mr Speaker.

And, we sincerely thank all working with the Commission to shine light into darkness with such empathy and clarity of purpose. 

Mr Speaker, the Greens will be here, working cooperatively with our colleagues to ensure every recommendation made by the Commission is implemented.  Tasmanian children and young people deserve nothing less.

I believe there is a shared commitment in this Parliament to delivering on the recommendations to the Commission of Inquiry.

If we have to cut the roads budget, or cancel the stadium on Hobart’s waterfront to give kids the future they deserve, then let’s have that debate.

Mr Speaker, let’s be honest with ourselves and everyone who is watching today.

We would not be here apologising, and there would be no Commission of Inquiry, without the courage of victim survivors who came forward, giving voice and strength to others, or the whistleblowers who cried the warnings.

What we’ve seen and heard, first through journalist, Camille Bianchi’s podcast, The Nurse, and the work of local journalists who amplified her groundbreaking work, then through the testimony of victim survivors and whistleblowers to the Commission of Inquiry, is just a sliver of the truth who were too often ignored, or worse – not believed or shut down.

To you brave, good people, we say sorry.

Mr Speaker, this island society and those it places in positions of authority and trust have a long, sorry history of damaging children.

The profound harm of this - to date - relentless failure by the State of Tasmania has been inflicted on Tasmanian children and young people over many generations.  Since colonization, in fact.

In the very early days of this settlement, Mathinna, a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl, was taken from her family to the home of colonial governor, Sir John Franklin and his wife. Lady Jane was childless, and they wanted to ‘improve’ the girl child. 

Instead, as we read in Richard Flanagan’s devastating book, Wanting, Mathinna was first treated like a pet, or an exhibit, then sexually abused, then discarded by the Franklins.

Mathinna died at 17 years of age, her last days reportedly spent as a prostitute. She was a child.

Not enough has changed since the bastard children of convicts were sent to the Orphan School, and Aboriginal children were ripped from their families into short lives of punishment and pain.

Only last month, we had children locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, day after day, at Ashley – a place that’s been torturing kids for a century.

For more than a decade, the Greens have been pushing for Ashley’s closure, and we won’t let up until its gates are closed for good and young people who end up in detention are treated with dignity and respect, and given a real crack at a good life.

Is now the right time to give this Apology? There are a range of valid views.

I think anytime is a good time to say sorry when we know there has been a terrible wrong.

We haven’t heard it all but we’ve heard enough, from victim survivors themselves, to know an apology and much, much more is needed.

It’s a moral imperative.

We’ve heard enough from whistleblowers who spoke up and came before the Commission of Inquiry to know an apology and more is needed.

We know there are victim survivors - some of whom for every valid reason could not face the Commission of Inquiry – who also suffer to this day.  We see you and we are so sorry you suffer.

Mr Speaker, in my life and work, I have known many victim survivors. I am always struck by how deep the scars of their abuse are, and how fresh the wounds.

I’ve known and loved victims who did not survive, including my beautiful baby sister, Kristy. Today I honour her life too.

May all who have been lost rest in light and peace.

And may we never again abandon the children.

Instead, let’s commit without reservation or qualification to making lutruwita/Tasmania the safest place in the country for children and young people.