News

After years of struggle, Chrissie Foster this week watched the prime minister apologise to victims and survivors of institutional child abuse. Now a new fight begins for redress. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The national apology and what comes next

Former prime minister Julia Gillard (right) and Chrissie Foster during Monday’s national apology.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

Chrissie Foster arrived in Canberra last Sunday, joined by other members of the advisory panel for the national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. Together, they went out for dinner. It was the night before the moment they had all worked for. The night before a moment they hoped would be cathartic, but not climactic – the apology, they all agreed, would not end responsibility.

They were nervous, proud and hopeful, which is an inadequate description. The sum of feeling was raw and irreconcilable. At dinner that night, these exhausted people, made industrious through grief and injustice, were joined by ghosts.

In the 1980s, two of Foster’s daughters were raped by Father Kevin O’Donnell, a man whose serial depravity benefited from the secrecy of the Catholic Church. One daughter, Katie, later found temporary escape in drink. In 1999, while drunk, she was hit by a car and profoundly disabled. Another daughter, Emma, took her own life in 2008. Last year, Chrissie’s husband, Anthony, a vocal and dignified campaigner, died suddenly after a fall.

For months, the panel consulted abuse survivors throughout the country. What did they think should be included in the speech? What shouldn’t be? The consultations were distilled into a thick volume of stories and recommendations for then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who had personally invited Foster to join the panel in January.

The panel’s report was presented to him only a week before he was deposed as leader. “So, we had to start again to see if Mr Morrison would make the apology,” Foster told me this week. “After a fortnight, he said yes. Then we had to meet with him, and we gave him the documents. He listened very well. Just last Wednesday, we gave the same documents to Mr Shorten.”

On Monday, Foster rose early. There was a morning tea at Parliament House, before she walked with Julia Gillard to the House of Representatives. They took their place on the edge of the chamber and held hands. At 11am, they watched the prime minister rise.

“Not just as a father but as prime minister, I am angry, too, at the calculating destruction of lives and abuse of trust, including those who have abused the shield of faith and religion to hide their crimes, a shield that is supposed to protect the innocent, not the guilty,” Morrison said. “And they stand condemned.”

There was a righteous anger to parts of his speech. While reading the lines above, the devout prime minister fought back tears. “Both speeches were very good,” Foster told me. “Heartfelt and they showed understanding. They chose their words well. I think Mr Shorten’s perhaps had a bit more edge on it. Shorten’s been looking at this issue for some time. Mr Morrison probably hasn’t. Mr Turnbull, like Bill Shorten, had been dealing with the issue for some time but Mr Morrison was new [to the leadership], but he did well despite this.”

Morrison’s speech lasted 20 minutes and included his announcement that a National Office for Child Safety would be established, as per the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’s recommendations, and that it would report directly to him. Morrison also announced a plan to build a museum documenting the history of institutionalised abuse, and memorialising its victims. “We can never promise a world where there are no abusers,” Morrison concluded. “But we can promise a country where we commit to hear and believe our children … I simply say: I believe you. We believe you. Your country believes you.”

 

At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in the Members Dining Room, I watched the speeches on a projection screen with a group of survivors, their friends and family. To our left was a panoramic view of the empty, sun-kissed stadium. Behind us were tables of scones and coffee. And among us, the event’s emcee had gently declared, were counsellors. Private rooms were reserved for their engagement.

All eyes were fixed on the screen, and I noticed how rigid each person’s posture was. This didn’t relax until Bill Shorten recognised the work of his former colleague. “Prime Minister Gillard, who had the courage and the leadership to initiate this royal commission, you are so very welcome today.” At this, the room burst into applause.

“Gillard was our hero,” Foster told me. “She called the royal commission. I can only imagine the opposition she faced, and she still did it. There were forces against her doing it that were horrendous. [George] Pell was fighting it big time. And they’re [the Catholic Church] the worst offender. That’s what she was up against. But it happened. And the people made that happen, too.”

Immediately after the parliamentary speeches, an event was held in the Great Hall, where hundreds of survivors, largely selected by ballot, were assembled. Hundreds more were outside on the lawns in front of Parliament House. As Foster approached the entrance with Gillard, those waiting in the hall began to cheer. Foster stopped, deferentially allowing Gillard to enter first. One man fell to his knees and kissed the former prime minister’s shoes – an embarrassed Gillard encouraged him back up on his feet. “It was amazing,” Foster says. “Everyone just loved her – you could feel it in the room. It was a concentration of people that she’d done this huge service to.”

 

The day was carefully managed, scripted, conducted before cameras. Still, the apology was a rare moment when “politics” directly engaged the roiling humanity it serves. In the Great Hall, survivors were variously embraced, consoled and aggravated. Politicians were cheered, hugged and heckled. On Monday, the membrane between governors and the governed was a little thinner.

Shorten and Morrison walked a fine line between acknowledging the abuse and knowing that their acknowledgements were insufficient. But knowing that the apology was late, and that contrition can neither restore health nor revive the dead, isn’t a reason not to give it – and so Morrison and Shorten persevered with their prepared statements, only momentarily responding to the angry shouts. Before them were assembled centuries of individual pain and suspicion, not all of it salved by their words, and I wondered if there might be a momentary breach – some Clintonian improvisation of sympathy.

There wasn’t, but the prepared remarks were powerful. Question time was suspended in deference, and the prime minister spent an hour meeting with victims. “I’m realising the gravity more now than on the day,” Foster told me later. “I think it was quite profound that it happened at all, and the words that were used. I just hope that that’s not all there is. It’s not the end. There’s work to do.”

The mother of one survivor told me she was moved and appreciative of the speeches, but like many others it couldn’t erase her anger. “When I sat face to face with Christian Porter, I told him that an apology without an honest admission as to why it took so long to have a royal commission or to admit that they all – men in positions of power, in particular – put their jobs, entitlements, institutions and buddies ahead of the welfare of children … would be less meaningful.”

At least the latter – the myriad horrific compromises to child welfare – was emphatically acknowledged by both leaders on Monday.

When Foster was consulting survivor groups, she says there was one uniform plea: that governments match their words with actions. “That was the main thing,” Foster says. “An apology’s fine, but all of us – ask any survivor what they would like, and they would like this not to happen again. The actions we want are the implementation of the royal commission’s recommendations. That’s the ultimate in child protection in this country, or probably any other. 1.2 million documents. Evidence in 8000 private sessions. All of this led to patterning and understanding of this crime. The recommendations are an antidote to this crime.”

Part of the commission’s voluminous report were 409 recommendations – 122 of which pertained to the Commonwealth. Of those, 84 related to the national redress scheme, which began on July 1 this year. Morrison said that of the 122 recommendations, 104 had been implemented – or were in the process. But Foster is angriest when she talks about the redress scheme, and her suspicion that “behind the scenes” churches have worked to compromise it. For one, she is frustrated by the Commonwealth’s decision to lower the recommended compensation cap from $200,000 to $150,000. “Also, the redress application form is over 30 pages long,” she says. “Part two asks for descriptions of the sexual assaults. Part three asks for a description of the impact the assaults have had on your life. Both these sections are to be given to the churches for insurance purposes. To enable the churches to get their insurance companies to pay instead of them.

“Mr Morrison has disallowed part three to be handed over to insurers, which is great and shows he can change the set-up. All of it should be changed. There is an independent redress panel which decides how much redress will be awarded. Their decision should be enough for the churches and not force victims to hand over descriptions of their rapes so the church can save its money.”

 

Francis Sullivan watched the apology from home. For the five years of the royal commission, as the chief executive of the Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, he served as the intermediary between the commission, the government and the Catholic Church. A few years ago, Sullivan helped arrange a meeting between Chrissie and Anthony Foster and Cardinal Pell. Having fulfilled its purpose, the council disbanded in April.

At times it seemed like an impossible position. Sullivan appeared equally distrusted by Catholics and survivors. But in conversations with Sullivan over the past few years, I found him humbly resigned to this position. He understood that elements of Catholic distrust flowed from a resistance to reform and atonement, and that the survivors’ distrust was a natural and respectable function of their betrayal. “The might of the Catholic Church compared to the suffering of individuals is so out of proportion,” he tells me.

Sullivan was stirred by the speeches. “It was extraordinarily moving: to listen again to the ugly facts but heartfelt apologies, and to see the faces of those in the parliament. The gravity of what the apology was about, the heft of that, was massively poignant. Both men expressed anger, which is terribly representative of how a lot of people feel – anger that this happened in institutions that they were told to trust. When trust in institutions are corroded, it undermines an individual’s sense of themselves. Their sense of confidence and security. In a sense, this pulls a rug out from under everybody.

“There’s a cathartic nature of doing something like this in a public way. It makes us vulnerable, but that’s important. The embrace of human misery is important. It’s sacramental. It’s far beyond political. So, I’m glad it happened. But I think the real work around, in the case of the Catholic Church, they still have to overwhelm victims with a pastoral care that so far hasn’t delivered, and elsewhere its response needs to be generous and sustainable.”

 

Scott Morrison was right to thank the royal commission. Not merely for its globally unprecedented scale, and how professionally that scale was managed, but also for the psychic tax on those involved. The volume of trauma ventilated by the commission was profound and unquantifiable – the number of phone calls, private briefings, case studies and hearings cannot properly measure it. Respect for survivors necessitates the public invisibility of their support staff, but the provision of therapists for them tells us something – and should oblige our appreciation. From this emerged recommendations, which Chrissie Foster describes as a national treasure.

When we talk this week, Foster has retired for a few days to the Victorian countryside. She’s reflective. Her suffering is profound but given shape by decades of advocacy. This has also made it very public.

“If you take away my fight and purpose for this, what’s left?” she says. “A disaster of a life. But there’s still a lot to life. A lot of joy. Two daughters, one married with two children. My grandchildren are amazing and adorable. But there’s great sadness. Anthony’s not here, and Emma is not here, and Katie is the way she is. But you keep going, I suppose. I’ve felt for a long time that they’re not going to take any more of my life than they already have.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "‘Julia Gillard was our hero’". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.