The Australian ‘National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse’
by Lara Kaput and Steven Unthank
31 March 2019
(20 minute read)
Background to National Apology
On 12 November 2012, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, announced that she would recommend to the Governor-General that a Royal Commission be appointed to inquire into institutional responses to child abuse.
Following this announcement, the Terms of Reference were established and then six Commissioners were appointed on Friday, 11 January 2013, by Her Excellency Quentin Bryce, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM was the chair of the Royal Commission and worked alongside five other Commissioners, Mr Bob Atkinson AO APM, Justice Jennifer Coate, Mr Robert Fitzgerald AM, Professor Helen Milroy and Mr Andrew Murray. See Our Commissioners to read their full biographies.
The Royal Commission presented its final report to the Governor-General on 15 December 2017. The report was the culmination of a five-year inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse and related matters.
One of the recommendations of the Royal Commission was the issuing of a National Apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.
‘We say sorry’
On Monday, 22 October 2018, the Australian Government issued a formal apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse. Included within the apology were the words ‘we say sorry’.
“We say sorry. To the children we failed, sorry.” – The Hon Scott Morrison MP, Prime Minister of Australia
“We say sorry for the pain and suffering inflicted on children, sorry for the childhoods that were stolen and the lives that were destroyed” – The Hon Bill Shorten MP, Leader of the Opposition
The National Apology, delivered by the Leaders of the Australian Parliament, followed individual apologies made to child abuse victims by religious leaders and other institutions throughout Australia. Notably silent were the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had maintained their silence since publicly branding, in 2015, all allegations of child abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “apostate-driven lies“. This knowingly false announcement was made within weeks of the religion being served notice of the impending Case Study 29 into Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not surprisingly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have publicly stated that they will not meet the Royal Commission’s recommendations toward child protection and refuse to join the National Redress Scheme. To date, Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, Inc., the parent organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, has also remained silent despite holding the financial liability for child abuse within the religion in Australia.
Tributes were also made during the National Apology to all institutional victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, many of whom bravely shared their stories to the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, with the aim of ensuring the shameful practices are never repeated.
In the lead up to the National Apology, some ten weeks earlier, on Sunday 12 August 2018, we had prepared, as part of the 2018 JW Protest in London, a Resolution that was subsequently adopted and formally read out. Item 10 of the Resolution stated:
“We Invite the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses to ‘Be Courageous’! and ‘Say Sorry’! to all child abuse victims from within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, past and present, some of whom are here today adopting this resolution, so that they and us may heal as we still hurt.”
Our invitation to ‘say sorry’ was rejected by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Say Sorry invited to the National Apology
We were invited to attend the National Apology by both the Prime Minister of Australia and the Attorney-General of Australia, as both survivors of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses and as community advocates.
Prelude to the National Apology
On the Friday before leaving for Canberra to attend the National Apology we traveled to Melton, Victoria, where it all began for the both of us, and where we first met as young children in the early 1980’s.
Lara was given an opportunity on ABC Radio Melbourne to remind listeners of the National Apology the following Monday, and to highlight that the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses were refusing to join the National Redress Scheme.
ABC Radio Melbourne host, Jon Faine, was taken aback that the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to join the scheme. Faine was joined on his show by two State politicians, Edward O’Donoghue MP and Jane Garrett MP, both of whom took the opportunity to speak directly to us live on air in relation to the National Apology and child abuse issues.
Lara was invited to a follow up radio interview after the National Apology with Jon Faine and to give a report on the experience, which she did do.
The nation’s capital, Canberra
The first night, Saturday, we were guests of The Rationalist Association of NSW, and spent a pleasant private evening dining out talking about how Humanism started in Australia, and about tiger snakes in the Australian outback when bush-walking. The evening company was rounded out with the addition of Eddie Puric, a local member of the Say Sorry team.
Sex worker, fashion designer, anti-censorship activist, fierce campaigner, political lobbyist and Member of Parliament – Fiona Patten’s life has been nothing if not eventful. Fiona became the first Leader of a political party to call for a Royal Commission into child sex abuse in religious institutions. In 2014, Fiona contested and won an upper house seat representing the Northern Metropolitan Region in Victoria.
In the 2018 Victorian election Fiona retained her political seat. We have been fortunate over the past 12 months to have informed members of Fiona Patten’s Reason Party on the unique needs of Jehovah’s Witness survivors, and a number of issues affecting all Victorians, including religious transparency.
Sunday night ‘survivors and supporters’ dinner
On Sunday night we caught up with close friends for dinner. These included fellow former members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as former Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community members. Among our dinner table included Dassi Herszberg, who had previously shared her fascinating story at the Shesh ‘6 Women 6 Stories 6 Minutes’ event organised by the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia (Vic), Pathways Melbourne, and Tzedek. Other women speakers at that event included Lara Kaput.
During our ‘survivors and supporters’ dinner we were excited by the arrival of a close friend, Dassi Erlich, who carried with her some good news on the Israeli extradition court case involving her abuser, Malka Leifer. An extradition hearing had just been heard in an Israeli court, but the fight, and the Israeli scandal, was not over.
A bit later in the evening we were joined by yet another friend and fellow-survivor Georgie Burg, who brought along her incredibly supportive husband, Phil, and her support dog in training, Darcy. Georgie’s story is linked to further down in this article.
For those interested in the long and arduous fight to get Malka Leifer extradited from Israel to Australia, to face 74 charges of indecent assault and child rape, see the following two-part documentary produced by ABC News (Australia).
The National Apology in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Monday 22 October 2018
Among the 400 victims and survivors, that were invited to attend the Grand Hall in Parliament House for the apology, were a number of survivors from the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were supported by a group of former Jehovah’s Witnesses who were in attendance in the Theatrette, and outside in Federation Mall.
Within our group of friends inside the Great Hall we had survivors from numerous institutions, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Anglican Church of Australia, and a number of Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. On taking our places we were surprised, and relieved, to find that on each seat was a bottle of water and a small packet of Kleenex tissues for those teary eyes.
Both within the Great Hall and in Parliament House there were a number of qualified counsellors and social workers who were available to offer support. They were identified by distinctive blue shirts. In addition a number of attendants were also on hand to assist and provide direction. They were easily identified by their distinct green shirts.
From 10:00am to 10:30am music was provided by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. The program for the morning was conducted by Lois Sharp and featured music from five Australian composers.
The program comprised of music by:
- Richard Meale (1932-2009) Cantilena Pacifica (2007)
- Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916) Elegy for string orchestra (1915)
- Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014) Little serenade (1977)
- Ella Macens (1991) Lake (2018, world premiere)
- Elena Kats-Chernin (1957) For Richard (2011)
Among our group of survivors was Georgie Burg, a concert violinist prodigy, who at the age of 13 was raped in the local Anglican All Saints Church by Priest John Philip Aitchison. The violin lessons were part of the scheme that Aitchison used to perpetrate his crimes.
A few weeks prior to the National Apology, Anglican Priest Aitchison, had finally been convicted and imprisoned for nine years.
Unfortunately the musical program, the orchestra, and the violinists, were too much for Georgie. They were her triggers.
But with strength and determination Georgie returned to the Great Hall. In reflecting on the day Georgie was later quoted by the media as saying, “It was lovely but also sort of sad, because this is a group of people who have had so little joy – that we’re grateful for anything.”
We were welcomed by the Master of Ceremonies, The Hon Dr Kay Patterson AO, one of the Australian Human Rights commissioners.
The Welcome to Country was by Ngambri Elder, Shane Patterson.
After the Welcome, Prime Minister Scott Morrison addressed parliament, in relation to the events of the day, before making his way to the Great Hall to deliver the National Apology before some 400 child sexual abuse survivors and their supporters.
Opportunities and discussions in the Great Hall
Immediately after the National Apology concluded in the Great Hall we had the opportunity to personally meet with and thank former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for her role in obtaining the Letters Patent for the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Other people we also met included Hetty Johnston AM of Bravehearts, and Federal senator for Victoria, Senator Derryn Hinch, who later met with a number of Ex-Jehovah’s Witness survivors and their supporters. Senator Hinch is the Chair of the Joint Select Committee on oversight of the implementation of redress related recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
In a quiet corner of the Great Hall we had the opportunity to privately thank The Hon Bill Shorten MP, Leader of the Opposition, for his moving speech. Arrangements were made to follow up our private discussion. This took place in Parliament House six weeks later on Thursday, 6 December 2018, when we had a series of productive meetings with various Federal MPs, and their staff, from both sides of government. More on those meetings at a later date.
Parliament House Grounds
The Press – Radio, Newspaper, and TV interviews
On the grounds of Parliament House we had a number of media commitments and interviews to give which we spread across the day’s events.
Among the subjects we discussed was the high rate of child sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that, as survivors ourselves, we were hoping to get a level of closure for many years of injustice that we had suffered at the hands of the leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had refused to believe us, or who had covered up our abuse.
A highlight for Steven Unthank and a number of Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses was the interview with Australian Associated Press.
Sherrie D’Souza, an active supporter of redress for Jehovah’s Witness child sexual abuse survivors, has had to battle being a victim of religious harm through extreme shunning by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Reporter Joanne McCarthy was a catalyst in getting the Child Abuse Royal Commission to happen by exposing the child abuse problem within the Catholic Church in Australia. McCathy’s journalism earned her the prestigious Gold Walkley Award in 2013.
We had the opportunity to meet with and thank McCarthy for her efforts. During our discussion McCarthy assured us that “the Jehovah’s Witnesses are next”.
The memorial tree sculpture
As part of the National Apology a memorial tree sculpture was placed in the front of Parliament House. Victims and survivors were invited to tie an official apology ribbon to the tree. Rather than use the provided ribbon we brought our own ribbon that Lara had saved for decades, and tied it to the tree, not just for ourselves as child sexual abuse survivors, but for all other survivors of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. On our purple ribbon we wrote the words “Say Sorry” and a reference to this website.
Survivors and Supporters
During the we also had the opportunity to meet fellow survivors, supporters, and activists from other religions. Among these were Chrissie Foster, a long standing campaigner for justice for survivors of institutional child sexual abuse, and the current joint 2018 Human Rights Award recipient.
We also got to meet with lawyers John Ellis and his wife Nicola, from Ellis Legal. An entire case study was dedicated to John Ellis and his incredible determination to hold the Catholic Church accountable for his own child sexual abuse as an altar boy. This led to, what is known as the ‘Ellis Defence‘, which is now being nullified by individual state legislation.
Meeting the Prime Minister of Australia
Eddie Puric, a member of the Say Sorry team and an ex-Jehovah’s Witness, is the ultimate diplomat dedicated to the seeking of justice for child sexual abuse survivors from the Jehovah’s Witness community. Eddie got to use his diplomatic skills and knowledge when he sought out the opportunity to have a face-to-face discussion with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in relation to high statistics of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia.
One point we all made sure of during the day was to highlight to all of the politicians we met the fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses child sexual abuse statistics in Australia (1,800) were much higher than the Catholic Church (4,444) on a per capita / membership basis.
Eddie is also the moderator of an Australia / New Zealand Support Group for Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses on Facebook. In early 2018, Louise Goode and Lara Kaput recorded a podcast interview, for JW Community Podcast, with Eddie about his support group. See Episode S05E06.
JW Community Podcast, hosted by Louise and Lara, has attracted some very interesting guests over the past 12 months. Among these have been Angus Stewart SC, who was not only counsel assisting the Child Abuse Royal Commission into the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but was recently appointed by the Attorney-General as a judge to the Federal Court of Australia. Other guests interviewed by Louise and Lara during 2018, included Steven Unthank, and Australian police lawyer, Mark Higginbotham, to name just a few. Not surprisingly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, along with their lawyers and attorneys, have tried to have the podcast programme stopped through legal action, but they have been completely unsuccessful.
Senator Derryn Hinch
After meeting the Prime Minister we had a second opportunity to discuss issues concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses with the leader of the Justice Party, the Federal senator for Victoria, Senator Derryn Hinch.
According to his website: “Thirty years ago, broadcaster (now Senator) Derryn Hinch went to jail for naming a paedophile priest, a convicted child rapist, still running a camp for kids in Victoria. A dramatic measure he felt necessary to take when the police, politicians and church leaders refused to take action to protect children at risk.”
“He then became a lightning rod for victims and their families — through radio, TV, his internet blog and social media. And now in the Senate representing six million Victorians and children all over Australia.”
“Hinch wore an electronic bracelet and spent five months under house arrest in 2012 for breaching suppression orders, naming two of Australia’s worst serial sex offenders at a rally on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House.”
“And, in 2014, he spent 50 days in jail — including two weeks in solitary confinement — for published comments about the Jill Meagher rape/murder case.”
“On release from jail, Hinch led a 180-kilometre, ten-day, Jail 2 Justice walk from Langi Kal Kal Prison to the steps of Parliament House to present 11 volumes of a petition (containing 130,000 names) calling for a national public register of convicted sex offenders.”
Accompanying Hinch on the Jail 2 Justice walk was Mr Andre Floyd*, an advocate for child protection within the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion. Day-after-day both Hinch and Floyd walked and talked while discussing the perceived problems within the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion.
That walk sparked the formation of Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party and in July 2016 he was elected to the Senate.
Andre Floyd appeared before the Child Abuse Royal Commission in a private session on 1 May 2015. Floyd gave evidence into the covering up of child sexual abuse in relation to a subsequently convicted and imprisoned ordained minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Senator Hinch is the Chair of the Joint Select Committee on oversight of the implementation of redress related recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. We were recently invited to make a formal submission to the Joint Select Committee on the failure of Jehovah’s Witness organisation to join the Redress Scheme. More on our submission at a later date.
*name changed by request.
On Friday, 11 January 2013 the then Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, Her Excellency Quentin Bryce, appointed six Commissioners for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Among the six Commissioners were the chair, The Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM, who presided over the case study into Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Hon. Justice Jennifer Coate, a Judge of the Family Court of Australia.
During the National Apology we got to meet and talk with both Justice Jennifer Coate AO and Justice Peter McClellan AM, two of the commissioners appointed to the Child Abuse Royal Commission.
The Hon. Justice Jennifer Coate AO
The Hon. Justice Jennifer Coate AO is a Judge of the Family Court of Australia. She has held a number of appointments, including Judge of the County Court of Victoria, State Coroner of Victoria, the inaugural President of the Children’s Court of Victoria, Senior Magistrate of the Children’s Court of Victoria and Magistrate and Deputy Chief Magistrate of the Magistrate’s Court of Victoria.
In the 2019 Australia Day Honours Justice Coate was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for “distinguished service to the law, and to the judiciary, to legal administration, and to child and youth justice”.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to be given the opportunity the talk with and thank Justice Coate for her tireless work in relation to the Child Abuse Royal Commission.
The Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM
The last person we met with on the day of the National Apology was The Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM, chair of the Child Abuse Royal Commission. This was only fitting as the first person we got to meet on the day was former Prime Minister Julia Gillard who announced the Child Abuse Royal Commission.
Without a doubt, The Hon. Justice Peter McClellan AM was one of the heroes for many survivors and supporters of the Child Abuse Royal Commission. With honour, integrity, justice, and impartiality, Justice McClellan presided over some of the most difficult and complex case studies, including Case Study 29 into Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Justice McClellan had the ability to put on the spot and extract succinct answers even from Geoffrey Jackson of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as the following interrogation highlights:
Justice McClellan: Mr Jackson, is there any biblical impediment to a woman being appointed to investigate an allegation [of child sexual abuse]?
Jackson: There is no biblical impediment to a woman being involved with the investigation.
[Transcript of GW Jackson, Case Study 29, 14 August 2015, 15954:8–12]
Despite the above factual answer, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses still refuses to allow a woman to be involved with the investigation of child sexual abuse, even if the victim was female, and even if the woman was the victim’s mother. For a discussion on the treatment of women within the Jehovah’s Witnesses see the following Say Sorry article on Reproductive Coercion.
Justice McClellan officially retired in February 2018. As such we were honoured to have Justice McClellan present at the National Apology. As he was leaving the National Apology, and his last official event, we noticed that accompanying Justice McClellan was his wife. We took the opportunity to personally and privately thank Mrs McClellan for ‘lending’ her husband to the Child Abuse Royal Commission for the five years it ran.
The following day
The next day we returned to Parliament House for a photo shoot. Among the series of photos we took was one that featured a complete set of the Findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Report on Case Study 29 into Jehovah’s Witnesses (see red stripe) pressing down the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the official bible of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A few weeks earlier, we were fortunate to be provided with a copy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses bible by a church elder who at the time was manning one of their trolley preaching carts outside the National Gallery of Victoria. We were at the NGV to see one of our favourite paintings Anguish (Angoisse) (c. 1878) by August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck.
Returning home to the State of Victoria
Not long after arriving home we were invited to Government House where we got to meet The Honourable Linda Dessau AC, Governor of Victoria. It was a privilege to explain our recent attendance at the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse.
The National Apology: A review by Responsible Witness
The Say Sorry Team