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Shining the Light on New Zealand’s Historic Child Abuse

Shining the Light on New Zealand’s Historic Institutional Child Abuse

Comment by CLAN NZ (a branch of Care Leavers Australasia Network)

The Oscar winning film Spotlight is easily one of the most important, powerful films of the last few years.

Spotlight is the factual drama of how in 2002 a Boston Globe team of investigative reporters exposed more than 200 paedophile clergy in that city alone. It was the first major newspaper reporting on clerical abuse worldwide. It shocked the USA, indeed the world, and brought to public attention the protection of abusers by senior clerics and the silencing of victims and their families by the church and its lawyers.

The Spotlight epic has worldwide implications, including within New Zealand.

For many viewers the most disturbing and shocking moment of the film is when the list of cities from around the world, where this kind of clerical abuse had occurred, is screened. Numerous Australian and New Zealand cities are featured. To the uninitiated that list of cities is horrifying.

Pope Francis has been quoted as saying that reliable data indicates that "about 2%" of clergy in the Catholic Church are paedophiles. Without quibbling over the exact number of paedophile priests involved, any reasonable person would have to agree that even one is too many.

A 2014 study commissioned by the U.S. Catholic Church showed that more than 4,000 U.S. priests have faced sexual abuse allegations in the last 50 years. Bearing in mind that most research suggests that only a third of abuse cases are ever reported, it is patently obvious that this is a problem of gigantic and worldwide proportions.

Unbelievably no official N.Z. Catholic Church figures have been kept on the total number of clergy to have faced abuse allegations here. The Church has acknowledged only "38 substantiated" cases of clerical abuse in the past 50 years. (That is men against whom they believe abuse has been proven). So it seems in N.Z. that we have so far only seen "the tip of the iceberg".

It is time for New Zealand to turn the spotlight on abuse nearer home

It is obvious that N.Z. is no different to the rest of the world. So in the absence of a N.Z. version of the Spotlight journalistic team - we urgently need to organise our own sweeping investigation. In no way should this be limited to just the Catholic Church but should cover all religions, institutions and charities that looked after children in “care”. And it is imperative that it has wide terms of reference to include all forms of historic institutional child abuse and neglect, not just sexual.

The present New Zealand situation

Most claims are dealt with by the Historic Claims team at the Ministry of Social Development. This has proven to be most unsatisfactory at best, as any institution investigating itself is surely in a position of conflict of interest.

Lawyer Sonja Cooper, who currently has 640 clients on her books, said recently on National Radio that only 50 of her claims are resolved with MSD a year, and the number of new complaints she receives doubles this annually. Delays of anything up to 15 years can be expected, which is completely unacceptable. This dragging on is seen as another form of abuse to the survivors, and an endless re-traumatisation.

In a surprising move, in 2015 the MSD, faced with their growing backlog of historic claims (921 at that point), implemented a fast-track option for claims received by the end of 2014. Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said 401 offers of compensation were made in the first tranche of the fast-track process and 328 were accepted. They had one month to accept or forfeit their claim and tellingly, they were all claimants who had no legal representation. Subsequently 307 payments were made, totalling $5.78 million.

Unfortunately most have probably ended up with less compensation than they were entitled to.

Commissions of Inquiry

So far N.Z. is the only Commonwealth country to never have had even one independent investigation into historic institutional child abuse. Consequently most of the New Zealand population still remains blissfully unaware of the extent of horrendous child abuse that occurred in New Zealand orphanages, institutions, children’s homes and in foster care.

Successive N.Z. Governments have resisted all calls for a Royal Commission of Inquiry. To date, the Government denies systemic abuse and failings in its institutions. However, this is contrary to the findings from all other previous institutional child abuse inquiries held in other countries around the world.

Australia, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the United Kingdom are all currently undertaking lengthy inquiries. The Inquiry in the UK is expected to take at least 5 years and is estimated to cost NZ$41.5 million. It will investigate decades of institutional child sex abuse and allegations involving “people of prominence” including politicians, as well as Catholic and Anglican Churches, councils and schools.

Where to from here for New Zealand?

We ask how many young Kiwi lives have been ruined by abuse and how many have already taken their own lives as a result? How many are now approaching old age with failing health and will die before they are given the chance to tell their stories and be finally believed and acknowledged?

We owe it to the victims and survivors, their families and supporters. They are the ones who suffered the sexual and physical abuse while in the “care” of the New Zealand State. They are the ones who suffered its aftermath; whose stories were disbelieved and discredited. They are the ones who have borne the psychological, social and financial consequences of major trauma; yet who are still continuing to raise this issue until it is heard.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry is N.Z.’s only fighting chance to right this terrible wrong. All New Zealanders, in fact, should be insisting this happens.

Wellington lawyer Sonja Cooper has recently renewed calls for a public inquiry.

Ken Clearwater, from Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse, says he's been fighting for an independent inquiry ever since the Boston Globe first uncovered the clerical abuse within the Catholic Church.


In November 2012, the Archbishop of Wellington, and President of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference (NZCBC), John Dew, publicly supported the establishment of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutionalised Child Abuse and said the NZCBC would support any similar investigation in New Zealand.

Bill Kilgallon, who handles the N.Z. Catholic Church's sex abuse claims, says they would support and cooperate with an inquiry and feels it should be similar to the one currently being held in Australia.

Garth McVicar, founder of the Sensible Sentencing Trust, announced at the beginning of this year that he considers a N.Z. inquiry into child sexual abuse is crucial, as the rampant abuse of children in New Zealand mirrors what prompted the UK inquiry. “We just haven’t had a Rolf Harris or Jimmy Savile to bring our own dirty laundry out into the open but the time bomb is ticking and the powder-keg will ignite.”

CLAN NZ fully supports this call for the New Zealand Government to step up to the plate and give this matter the urgent priority it deserves.

CLAN New Zealand works for justice and redress for all New Zealanders who grew up in orphanages, institutions or children’s homes, as a State ward, home child or in foster care. Email clan.nz@actrix.co.nz

ENDS

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