Emotional Australian PM says sorry to victims of institutional child abuse

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison broke down in tears Monday while making a national apology to thous...

Posted: Oct 22, 2018 10:47 AM
Updated: Oct 22, 2018 10:47 AM

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison broke down in tears Monday while making a national apology to thousands of victims of child sexual abuse in institutions in a scandal which has spanned decades.

In a speech which was broadcast live across the country, Morrison said the trauma suffered by victims in institutional settings from church orphanages to youth groups and schools had been "hiding in plain sight for too long."

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"We honor every survivor in this country, we love you, we hear you and we honor you," he said during his speech in the Australian Parliament.

The formal apology followed a national investigation into institutional sexual abuse in Australia, which spanned five years and stunned the country with revelations of thousands of cases of shocking abuse.

At least 16,000 people contacted the commission since it began in 2013, and by the time it concluded more than 8,000 Australians had given private testimony about instances of sexual abuse they had witnessed or experienced.

In his speech, Morrison acknowledged the many victims of physical, sexual and mental abuse who had taken their own lives due to the trauma they endured, as well as those who had yet to report their abuse.

He said he hoped the apology would "give strength to others who were yet to share what happened."

"Today Australia confronts a trauma, an abomination, hiding in plain sight for far too long. Today we confront a question too horrible ask, let alone answer, why weren't the children of our nation loved, nurtured and protected?" Morrison said.

In a rare show of emotion for the new prime minister, Morrison briefly broke down and fought back tears when he talked of meeting leading author and advocate Chrissie Foster.

"As a father of two daughters I can't comprehend what she has faced," Morrison said.

Two of Foster's three daughters, Emma and Katie, were repeatedly abused by a local school Catholic priest near their home in Oakleigh, Melbourne.

Later as teenagers and young adults, the sisters were so traumatized that Emma later took her own life, aged 25, while Katie coped by drinking heavily. She was left disabled after being hit by a car while drunk in 1999.

Foster told CNN the official apology was "hugely significant" but would cause a mix of emotions for survivors and their families.

"The overall impression for survivors was that offenders, particularly in the churches, were protected from the law and its punishments ... Survivors will feel anything from anger to relief at this apology," she said.

Thousands of abuse cases revealed

The apology comes 10 months after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse issued a damning final report into the abuse of children at a wide spectrum of institutions reaching back decades.

It was promised by Morrison's predecessor, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who set the date for a national apology in June when announcing the government's response to the report.

The report by, which cost the Australian government $355 million (A$500 million) and heard from thousands of victims over five years, warned that children were still being sexually assaulted.

The commission revealed in 2017 that 7% of Catholic priests, working between 1950 and 2009, were accused of child sex crimes. In total, 4,444 alleged cases were recorded in Catholic institutions. Many cases are continuing to be heard through the courts as a result of the hearings.

The Australian Catholic Church said in August it would accept the majority of the commission's recommendation, including enacting voluntary celibacy for priests.

Foster, who was on the official advisory board for the apology, said she was adamant the Royal Commission recommendations should be implemented in full.

"We need to implement them because keeping children safe in the future is why we have faced the Royal Commission and told our harrowing stories," she said.

Bill Shorten, the opposition Labor Party leader, said that other countries have been educated and inspired by what Australia has done in terms of holding a Royal Commission.

"They are looking at what Australia has done and seeing that it's best practice around the world for putting the people that matter at the center," he said.

Morrison vowed that the government would adhere to the recommendations made in the final report saying the survivors deserved "action."

He confirmed the government were already taking action on 104 of the 122 recommendations. "It wasn't a foreign enemy...this was done by Australians to Australians -- enemies in our midst, the enemies of innocence," he said.

'Bad memories will last our whole lives'

Two sisters who were abused in an Australian orphanage reunited to hear the apology together at a special screening.

Debra Wooby, 53, and Donna Wooby, 51, both suffered abuse while living at St Cuthbert's Children's Home in Colac, in rural Victoria. They told CNN that watching the apology together had been "hugely emotional."

"We'd like to watch it again as it was quite overwhelming," Debra, who was abused by a care worker at the home, told CNN.

"It was like listening to your own story but for us we have to live with the pain every day. The apology is important but the bad memories will last our whole lives."

Despite the apology, there has been anger among advocates that the Australian Catholic Church in particular has resisted a key recommendation of the Royal Commission by refusing to break the sacred seal of confession.

Many senior Catholic figures in Australia, including Mark Coleridge, the Archbishop of Brisbane, have stated they would rather risk jail than reveal what was said by priests in confession.

As the Vatican continues to be buffeted by scandals of abuse by clergy from the US to Ireland, Chile and Germany, Pope Francis is under pressure to be seen to be making changes and taking action even if it means altering ancient canon laws.

Anger has also been heard over the new redress compensation scheme for Australian victims which is is proving to be a complex and slow process for many, with others angry that the $200,000 recommended by the Royal Commission was later capped at $150,000.

After the apology, Morrison was heckled when he stood on the stage in Parliament's Great Hall to speak to gathered survivors and advocates after his speech in parliament.

Morrison said he "understood the anger" before reading out the formal government apology to the Australian victims of institutional sexual abuse.

"Today we reckon with our past and commit to protect children now and into the future .... as children you deserve care and protection instead the very people entrusted with you care failed you," he said, "We are sorry."

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