Private session narratives
(20 minute read)
On 2 October 2018, in the lead up to the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, Say Sorry published on our web site 44 de-identified private session narratives on child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia.
Full copyright permission to publish all narratives was provided by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse via the Commonwealth of Australia, the primary copyright holder. The copyright licence allows SaySorry.org and any person or organisation to ‘share, copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format’, and to ‘adapt, remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.’
In maintaining the integrity of all 44 narratives relating to the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation, and the intention of the Child Abuse Royal Commission in releasing each individual story as a narrative for sharing, Say Sorry decided not edit or change a single word in any story. As such all 44 stories are true to their original published narrative.
The preamble to the 44 narratives on SaySorry.org accurately states: “All stories are from the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse: Final Report.”
All 44 narratives relating to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia can be accessed and read here: https://saysorry.org/stories/.
A total of 8,013 private sessions were held by the Child Abuse Royal Commission. Of that number some 3,955 Private Session Narratives (all de-identified) were produced and published by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. According to the Child Abuse Royal Commission, the full consent of all 3,955 private session attendees who had their narratives published was obtained.
The private session narratives were originally published and released on 15 December 2017 by the Child Abuse Royal Commission in three different formats:
- as part of a USB drive containing a searchable database of the entire Final Report and all 3,955 narratives which was mailed out to organisations and individuals who assisted the inquiry;
- on a CD entitled “Final Report Private Session Narratives”; and
- online as an appendix to the Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions.
In the Child Abuse Royal Commission’s Final Report, the purpose for publishing the private session narratives was explained by the commission as follows:
“We also decided to publish, with their consent, as many individual survivors’ experiences as possible, as de-identified narratives drawn from private sessions and written accounts. These narratives are presented as accounts of events as told by survivors of child sexual abuse in institutions. We hope that by sharing them with the public they will contribute to a better understanding of the profound impact of child sexual abuse and may help to make our institutions as safe as possible for children in the future. The narratives are available as an online appendix to Volume 5, Private sessions.” – Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions, p. 2.
In publishing the 44 private session narrative stories on SaySorry.org special consideration was given to the following published request by the Child Abuse Royal Commission:
“The Royal Commission recognises that the media has an important role to play in reporting on its work. Media coverage resulting from the Royal Commission’s activities improves community understanding of the issues being examined.
“The Royal Commission encourages sensitive, ethical reporting of the issues and requests that, wherever possible, the contact details of support services are included in media reports such as Lifeline because survivors of child sexual abuse are often traumatised by the abuse suffered and the impact can be life-long.” – Accessed 15 December 2017. https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/media-releases
Victim or survivor?
In the use of the terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ Say Sorry has adopted the same approach as the Child Abuse Royal Commission did in its Final Report, as follows:
“We use the terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ to describe someone who has been sexually abused as a child in an institutional context. We use the term ‘victim’ when referring to a person who has experienced child sexual abuse at the time the abuse occurred. We use the term ‘survivor’ when referring to a person who has experienced child sexual abuse after the abuse occurred, such as when they are sharing their story or accessing support. Where the context is unclear, we have used the term ‘victim’. We recognise that some people prefer ‘survivor’ because of the resilience and empowerment associated with the term.
“We recognise that some people who have experienced abuse do not feel that they ‘survived’ the abuse, and that ‘victim’ is more appropriate. We also recognise that some people may have taken their lives as a consequence of the abuse they experienced. We acknowledge that ‘victim’ is more appropriate in these circumstances. We also recognise that some people do not identify with either of these terms.” – Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions, p. 31.
What is a private session?
The following explanation was published by the Child Abuse Royal Commission in the Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions:
“It was apparent to the Australian Government at the time the Royal Commission was established that many people (ultimately thousands) would want to tell us about their personal experiences of institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
“When explaining the need for private sessions, the Attorney-General stated:
A traditional royal commission hearing setting will not generally serve as the best way to facilitate participation in the Royal Commission by those people affected by child sexual abuse.
For many, telling their story will be deeply personal and traumatic. While we cannot know at this time how many people will wish to participate, sadly we know that this crime has affected many in our community.
In order to carry out its inquiry, the private session mechanism will give the Royal Commission greater flexibility to directly hear from a potentially large number of people. Participants will not need to tell their accounts on oath or affirmation. These private sessions will not be open to the public and participation will be voluntary.
“The Royal Commissions Act 1902 (Cth) was amended specifically to allow the Royal Commission to hear from survivors in private sessions. The Act provides that a private session is not a hearing of the Royal Commission. Nor is a person who appears at a private session a witness before the Royal Commission or considered to be giving evidence.
“The Act is not prescriptive regarding the conduct of private sessions. This allowed the Royal Commission to be flexible in catering for the different needs of those wishing to attend a private session.
“Private sessions were the primary way for the Commissioners to listen to survivors’ experiences of child sexual abuse in institutional contexts. They enabled survivors and others affected by child sexual abuse to speak confidentially to a Commissioner or Commissioners in a private and supportive environment. The majority of those who attended were survivors of child sexual abuse in institutions. We also heard from family members, friends and whistleblowers who were affected by the child sexual abuse of others.
“Many survivors told us how important it was to them to tell their story to a Commissioner who in their eyes, represented the ‘highest authority in the land’. They felt that the Australian Government and the people of Australia were finally taking them seriously and that what they had to say about their experiences of child sexual abuse was valued – that it mattered and they mattered.” – Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions, p. 33.
Private sessions, informed consent and the private session narrative process
Those who registered for a private session with the Child Abuse Royal Commission up to the closing date on 30 September 2016 were sent an information pack which included a registration confirmation thank you letter and a 16-page booklet Sharing your story – A guide to your private session (see download links below).
The Sharing your story booklet provides the following information to private session attendees:
“What will happen with the information I provide at my private session?
“The information you provide is confidential. It will help the Royal Commission to understand the impact of institutional child sexual abuse and how it might be prevented in the future. The Royal Commission may also use the information to help it decide what further investigations it should undertake.
“The Royal Commission may also use the information you provide in your private session in our reports. If you agree to this during your private session, your information will be “de-identified”. This means that your identity (and other information that could reveal your identity) will not be published in our reports.” – ‘Sharing your story: A guide to your private session’, p. 6. As published in the Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions, pp. 312-327.
The Sharing your story booklet also informed those who registered for a private session that they will receive a phone call to determine the best suitable time and location for their private session. Those who still desired to share their story with the Child Abuse Royal Commission were then sent a confirmation of private session letter from a Private Sessions Coordinator.
This confirmation of private session letter, as published in the appendix of the Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions (see download link below), advised the attendee:
“The Royal Commission will publish a summary of some personal experiences that are shared with us in private sessions. They will be published in a way that no individual can be identified. Many of these experiences were published in our Interim Report, and we will also include them in our Final Report. When we do this, the identity of the person who told us their story, and of anyone else involved, will be kept completely confidential. Please tell a Commissioner in your private session if you do not want your story included in our report.” – Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions, pp. 307-308.
For those who attended a private session a thank you notice and follow up booklet After sharing your story was provided (see download link below). This booklet, as published in the appendix of the Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions, again informed the attendee that:
“If you have agreed to it, the Royal Commission may also use some of your information in its reports. Your information will be ‘de-identified’, which means that your identity (and any other information that could reveal your identity) will not be published in our reports.” – ‘After sharing your story’. As published in the Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions, pp. 333-343.
A total of 8,013 private sessions were held by the Child Abuse Royal Commission.
As a result of the private sessions a total of 3,955 Private Session Narratives (all de-identified) were produced and published by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse as part of the Final Report. The full consent of all 3,955 private session attendees, who had their narratives published, had been sought and obtained by the Child Abuse Royal Commission.
The 3955 narratives
According to the Child Abuse Royal Commission:
“Each survivor’s private session was considered for inclusion in the Royal Commission’s narrative collection. Narratives were intended to tell the story of an individual survivor in a way that would help people to understand their experience. To achieve this, narrative writers took the information survivors shared with Commissioners in their private sessions and condensed it into a brief de-identified narrative format that could be read by others. A copy of the guidelines provided to narrative writers is at Appendix L.
“In most cases, a private session was deemed suitable for conversion into narrative format if the survivor had been asked and did not object to the de-identified use of their story. In a few cases, a private session was not converted to narrative format if it could not be appropriately de-identified or if there were outstanding legal issues.
“Professional writers listened to the audio recording of each private session deemed suitable for conversion into narrative format. The writers also reviewed the survivor’s file and any supporting documentation they may have provided. Each narrative was de-identified to protect the survivor’s identity and ensure the information they had given us remained confidential. The de-identification process included attributing pseudonyms to people mentioned in the narrative, including the survivor and alleged adult perpetrator or child with harmful sexual behaviours, and removing institution names and locations that could identify the people in the narrative. Details of the person’s story were not changed, though in some instances details were removed if they could identify the survivor, alleged adult perpetrator or child with harmful sexual behaviours, or the institution. The narrative collection can be found on the Royal Commission’s website.” – Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions, p. 48.
Did the private session narratives come from a case study or from a private session?
On the official USB drive containing a searchable database of the entire Final Report and all 3,955 narratives, a further explanation was provided by the Child Abuse Royal Commission as to the origin and source of the private session narratives:
“These stories are from people who spoke with a Commissioner during a private session of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Real names of individuals have not been used, except of public figures in a public context. The information the person provided was not evidence, the person was not a witness, and did not need to take an oath or affirmation, although they were expected to tell the truth. Nothing in this story is a finding of the Royal Commission and any views expressed are those of the person, not of the Commissioners.” – Final Report, Private session narratives, USB searchable database. 2017.
The narrative writing process
On the narrative writing process, the Child Abuse Royal Commission provided strict guidelines for the professional narrators. The following information is taken from the Child Abuse Royal Commission’s Final Report and explains the narrative writing process:
The narrative writer’s task is to transform an audio recording of a private session into a short story that is:
- Faithful to the attendee’s account
- Engaging and accessible.
Stories need to be short, so can’t include everything. The writer’s first and most important step when deciding what material to include in a story is to ask ‘what is important to the attendee?’ Additionally, there are many secondary considerations that a writer will take into account when writing a story, such as:
Useful things to include in the story
Background: where and when was the attendee born? Where did they grow up? Family structure? School? Church? Sporting or recreational clubs?
Incidents: where and when did the abuse take place? What was the attendee’s relationship to the abuser? Who is the abuser (age, gender, role etc)? How many incidents over what duration? Were other children also abused? How did it end?
Disclosure then: did the attendee disclose the abuse to anyone at the time? If not, why not? If so, what was that person’s reaction? How did the institution respond? How did the attendee feel about the institutional response?
Impact: how did the abuse affect the attendee at the time? How did its legacy affect their life? How have they managed to cope?
Disclosure later: did the attendee disclose the abuse to someone later in life? Who? When? Why? What difference did this make to their life?
Redress: has the attendee reported the matter to police? To the institution? Have they taken any legal action? If not, why not? If so, how did the attendee feel about the process and its outcome?
Now/Future: what is the attendee’s life like now? Any examples of resilience? Any victories, achievements, good relationships or other positive things? Does the attendee have any recommendations? Why did they come to the Royal Commission? What are their hopes for the future?
Some guiding principles
Keep it clear and concise: you can write any way you like, so long as it’s clear. But in general, favour short sentences and short paragraphs. Bear in mind what the story will look like on the computer screen and printed page. Large blocks of text are off-putting for most readers.
Get to the point: try to cover the abuse early in the story or otherwise hook the reader.
Address the Terms of Reference (TOR): roughly speaking, we only cover stories that fall within these TOR: sexual abuse of a child in an institution (or by a member of an institution). Sometimes attendees want to talk about other things. It’s okay to include non-TOR things in your story but always include some mention of the issue that falls within TOR.
Use quotes: and when you do, be accurate always. A paraphrase is not a quote and MUST NOT appear in quotation marks. See style notes below for more detailed guidance.
Include a few unique details: they add colour to the story and help readers relate to the attendee’s experience. But don’t go overboard. Too much detail will render a story inaccessible.
Tell a story, not a parable: focus on the survivor’s story and avoid overly moral, or judgemental words or sentences.
Avoid overly emotive language: these stories are powerful enough on their own; they don’t need flowery add-ons such as ‘Choking back tears she told the Commissioner the heartbreaking story of how…’
Follow chronological order: this is a helpful rule. Follow it and your stories will be easier to write and read. But feel free to break it when you have good reason. What’s a good reason? A story might work best if you open with a vivid anecdote about the attendee’s adult life and then ‘flash back’ to when they were a child.
Include the positives as well as the negatives: for example, what characteristics does a survivor display in times of extreme hardship?
Take care with graphic material: there is no hard and fast rule for dealing with graphic material. On the one hand, we must avoid being salacious; on the other hand we must honestly depict the horror of child sexual abuse and be faithful to the attendee’s story as they told it. Usually a balance can be struck. If in doubt, put it to the team and have a chat.
Write with your own unique flair: Don’t get bogged down by all these guidelines, and don’t feel you have to mimic exactly the style of other stories. Diversity is good. Keep it clear, concise and compelling, but do it your own way.” – Final Report Volume 5 Private sessions, pp. 355-356.
Authority under law to publish Private Session Narratives
The Commonwealth Royal Commissions Act 1902, in section 6OJ(b) Inclusion of information in reports and recommendations, grants authority under law to the Child Abuse Royal Commission to publish private session narratives as part of the Final Report, for public release and sharing, providing the information is de-identified.
“Information that relates to a natural person that has been obtained at a private session for a Royal Commission or that was given to a member, or member of the staff, of a Royal Commission for the purposes of a private session (whether or not a private session was, or is to be, held for the Commission) may be included in a report or recommendation of the Commission only if:…(b) the information is de-identified.” – s.6OJ(b) Royal Commissions Act 1904 (Cth)
Material reprinted from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report. © Commonwealth of Australia. 2017. Used under licence.
*Narrative questions and answers provided by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and are extracted from the brochure ‘Narratives frequently asked questions‘. © Commonwealth of Australia. 2017. Used under licence.
All images, unless otherwise stated, © Commonwealth of Australia. 2017.
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