Standing up for Canberra

Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse

I'd like to commend and thank the previous member, our Deputy Prime Minister, for those moving words and also for his compliments to former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is here today for the unveiling of that extraordinary portrait.

It's a portrait that will definitely stand out in the parliament and will definitely be a significant drawcard and a feature of the parliament. She wanted it to be different because she was the first female Prime Minister, and that’s what she's got. We have got a very powerful piece of portraiture there that conveys her personality, her dignity, her graciousness, as the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned, her sense of self and her humility. It's beautifully captured in that piece.

Thank you so much, Deputy Prime Minister, for those very moving words about what we saw on Monday and also in response to the former Prime Minister and the significant contributions she's made. Thank you so much for acknowledging that. We on the Labor side are very proud of what she's done in so many ways. We are very proud, particularly today and particularly this week, of the fact that she brought this apology about.

She initiated the royal commission and she addressed those scars and those wounds that had been around for decades and decades. Thank you so much to our Deputy Prime Minister. Thank you for those beautiful words.

As our Deputy Prime Minister and everyone else who's spoken so beautifully today has said, Monday was a very significant day for this parliament, for every member of parliament and every senator but, most importantly, for those who had made the journey from all over Australia. Who'd made the journey from all over the world to finally hear the apology after those decades and decades of pain, of abuse, of living with the demons from the past. How hard would it have been for so many of them to make that journey?

As the Leader of the Opposition said, words are good but what is the action? We have a moral duty as a parliament not to second-guess the royal commission but just to get on and implement its recommendations.

As the Leader of the Opposition said, imagine the strength and the courage of those who made that journey from Canberra, from New South Wales, from across the other side of the country, from across the other side of the world who made that journey, and imagine what they were going through on the way here.

How brave of them to actually come to the Great Hall, to come to the parliament in, as the Leader of the Opposition said, an exercise of triumph, of hope over experience. Because these are people who, as children, were let down by institutions. These were children who were not only let down by institutions but were abused by institutions. They were demoralised by institutions. They were disgraced by disgraceful people in institutions.

The fact that they had the fortitude, the courage, the strength, the resilience to actually make that trek, that journey here to parliament, this institution, shows that they overcame, I imagine so many fears and so many demons. I just think it is quite extraordinary. The fact that they were here is a show of hope, of strength, of courage, of resilience. I commend them and I thank them for being here for the apology, an expensive and gutsy move. And I thank them for coming and staring down those demons and for, as the Leader of the Opposition said, showing hope over experience.

My community, unfortunately, was not immune to the disturbing incidents that were uncovered by the royal commission. The royal commission exposed Marist College in Canberra as the most notorious of Catholic schools in Australia for child sexual abuse claims. In fact, it had its own volume. It found 63 claims of child sexual abuse were made against the school but the true figure is believed to be much larger. The sexual abuse of students at Marist College was happening in the seventies, eighties and nineties and it has affected many in the Canberra community. Marist College was not the only culprit but it was the worst offender.

I want to read an incredibly powerful piece that was written last year about this dark time in Canberra's history. It says:

About 20 boys crammed into the small hotel room in Wellington and the mood was sombre. Marist College Canberra's First XV had gathered to hold court.

The 1978 rugby tour of New Zealand was going well, but they weren't there to talk about football. The night before an incident had profoundly shaken the group.

One of the players had been called to a Marist brother's room on the pretence of treating an injury from that day's game. The coach tried to sexually assault the boy. He fled, told his closest friend, and word had spread quickly through the touring party.

The boys, aged between 16 and18, called a meeting. At its end they passed a resolution: the coach was to be banned from the change room, when the team returned to Canberra, the brother was to leave the school and the Marists were called on to guarantee that he would never teach again.

The shocking incident caused one 17-year-old to question a commitment. At school's end he had resolved to leave for Sydney, to train as a priest.

So he sought the counsel of another brother travelling with the group, a popular man who ran a movie club at the school.

When the boy confided his fears about the act of a man who professed to be a model of faith he got an unexpected response.

The brother's face darkened with fury: why would your vocation be affected by the actions of one man? The boy felt ashamed of his doubts.

Other reports emerged about sexual assaults at Marist Brothers in Canberra in the 1970s and 80s. Among the accused one name stood out— and that is the name of the very well-known Brother Kostka.

In 1978, Brother Kostka had reacted with fury when confronted with the sins of his confrere because the questions of a child shone a light into his black conscience.

These shards of memory have been revived by the evidence given to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The breadth of the abuse is astounding, the damage to the standing of the Church permanent and the failure of its bishops unforgivable.

And one thing is clear. In 1978 a group of Catholic schoolboys was confronted with evil and called to make a moral decision.

They did so in the light of the best teachings of their faith. The vote had been unanimous. They demanded justice for their friend and that the threat to other boys be removed, forever.

This piece was penned by my husband, who was part of that rugby team in New Zealand. He was part of the group who stood up against the system to call out wrong, to call out evil, and it was ignored. The fact that this went on for so long and was ignored for so long is a great shame for Marist College and the Canberra community.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Marist College for the considerable effort in recent years—recent years—they have put into acknowledging what happened in the past, for apologising for the sexual abuse by staff in the past, for acknowledging the many victims, the survivors, their families and the current community of students, staff and parents.

I particularly want to thank ambassador for Bravehearts, Damian De Marco, who showed incredible courage and commitment in calling this out. There are thousands and thousands who have been incredibly brave, and I want to commend, acknowledge and thank them for their commitment and their courage. It must have been incredibly lonely for you for so long. You must have doubted yourselves for so long. You must have doubted your sanity for so long. You must have doubted your faith for so long. You must have doubted your trust in the system for so long. And you must continue to doubt. I can imagine there were so many nights and so many days where you were staring down so many demons for so many decades.

In closing, I want to again quote from Chris's article, because it clearly outlines that what is good and what is evil is crystal clear. There is no grey about this. It highlights that there is good and evil in life and that those who are in authority chose to ignore that. They knew that. They knew that good and evil was crystal clear and they chose to ignore it, and for that they are a disgrace. Chris writes:

In that room, on that day, those boys showed more moral courage and were better disciples than the princes of their Church. That is a triumph, and a tragedy at the same time. May this never, ever happen again.