CANBERRA: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a national apology to thousands of victims of institutional sex abuse Monday, admitting the state utterly failed to stop “evil, dark crimes” committed over decades.
“This was done by Australians to Australians, enemies in our midst, enemies in our midst,” Morrison said in an emotional address to parliament, designed as a belated apology to the 15,000 known survivors of child abuse.
“As a nation, we failed them, we forsook them, and that will always be our shame,” he said, recounting abuse that a government inquiry has shown was rife in schools, churches, orphanages, sports clubs and other institutions across the country over decades.
Morrison’s voice cracked and trailed off as he recounted a history of exploitation, cover-ups and state failure. He declared a new national credo for future allegations: “We believe you.”
The state apology comes after a five-year Royal Commission that detailed harrowing child sex abuse claims involving once well-trusted institutions.
“Today, we say sorry, to the children we failed. Sorry. To the parents whose trust was betrayed and who have struggled to pick up the pieces. Sorry. To the whistle-blowers, who we did not listen to. Sorry,” Morrison said.
“To the spouses, partners, wives, husbands, children, who have dealt with the consequences of the abuse, cover-ups and obstruction. Sorry. To generations past and present. Sorry.”
In parliament, lawmakers stood for a moment of silence following the remarks, as hundreds of survivors looked on or watched in official events across the country.
Normal parliamentary business, a session of prime minister’s questions, was suspended in a bipartisan show of respect.
Outside the parliamentary chamber, relatives of victims wore tags with the names of departed daughters and sons, brothers and sisters, for whom the apology came too late.
After meeting some of the victims, Morrison told journalists “I’ve never felt such pain in one room, ever.”
A series of Australian institutions have already apologised for their failings, including Australian Catholic leaders who have lamented the church’s “shameful” history of child abuse and cover-ups.
According to the Royal Commission, seven per cent of Catholic priests in Australia were accused of abuse between 1950 and 2010, but the allegations were rarely investigated, with child victims ignored and even punished.
Some senior members of the church in Australia have been prosecuted in relation to the abuse.
Power of apology
The Australian government has previously issued formal apologies for the mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians, for forced adoptions and homosexual convictions.
There are growing calls for an apology for the military’s treatment of gay, bisexual and transgender personnel.
For many Australians there will still be questions about how the child sex abuse and cover-ups took place.
And for some of the victims, the government’s atonement rings hollow — a step short of removing public funding for offending institutions, or far-ranging legal reforms.
At an event attended by the leaders of both major political parties, protesters shouted demands that the government do more to punish the guilty and dig into the past of other institutions like the military.
“Today’s apology to victims of institutional child abuse highlights the power of a public apology to heal past wounds,” said Professor Noah Riseman of the Australian Catholic University.
“But in the midst of today’s acknowledgement there was a reminder that other victims of institutional trauma remain unacknowledged.”