Last Monday, Newington College, a private boys' school in Sydney, was the latest school rocked by historic child sexual abuse allegations. The reports indicated that the school sent an email out to the parents of current and former students notifying them of an anticipated court case involving allegations of prior abuse at the school.
Two weeks earlier, another one of Sydney's most prestigious private schools, St Ignatius College, Riverview, was forced to send a letter to parents informing them about child sexual abuse allegations made by a former student.
Both cases follow the chilling public inquiry into yet another prestigious private boys' school, Knox Grammar, which was the focus of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse earlier this year. This particular case shocked the community - not only in relation to the reality of the three-decade history of child sexual abuse at the school, and the currency of the case up till 2012, but by the numbers of teachers charged.
The conduct of the school was especially disturbing. With the loss of records, and the former headmaster reportedly contradicting evidence that he gave earlier in the investigation, we saw evidence which suggested ongoing cover-ups, as well as the compounding impacts on victims. This public hearing is to recommence its inquiry, in late April.
As the royal commission continues to lift the lid on the conspiracy of silence within institutions across Australia, we'll continue to see establishments, including those once considered illustrious, untouchable, too high-profile and powerful forced to reveal their histories. We saw this with religious institutions and we're now seeing it with a series of private schools, not only in Sydney but Australia-wide.
While there is no doubt such revelations of abuse within Australia's elite schools leave us all questioning the awe in which these institutions were once held, they also debunk value judgments about the places in which child sexual abuse occurs, who the perpetrators are, and the capacity for cover-up.
What we are experiencing is a noteworthy shift whereby such institutions are coming forward – whether of their own accord or by sheer force of public opinion – to inform the school community and the wider community of such allegations. In each case we are shocked by the testimony of victims and their families as they courageously come forward to speak of the betrayal of those who abused them and of systems of inaction.
As a result, Australians are becoming more aware of the scourge of child sexual abuse and the shock waves it sends throughout the community. Most sobering are the long-lasting struggles of so many of those affected. Individuals and their families who went about their everyday business in good faith, have had their dreams and futures shattered in societal bastions of prior repute. The cost to them is immeasurable, as it is to society as a whole. Five million Australian adults are living with the long-term repercussions of childhood trauma, which Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) found is costing this community a minimum of $9.1 billion annually in adult health and psychosocial impacts.
Although private schools are featuring now, prior revelations of the royal commission tell us that any institution may be implicated over time. The reality is that child sexual abuse knows no demographic, class, religious, geographical, racial or gender bounds.
Perpetrators do not fit set stereotypes. We have seen celebrities charged one after the other, from Rolf Harris to Robert Hughes. Their celebrity status, once a protection, no longer so. Now we are seeing this with our once "safe" schools.
The co-operation, honesty and transparency we are observing at long last for example from the latest two cases involving Newington and St Ignatius schools, was not the practice, even five years ago.
Schools are accepting that their duty of care is to inform the current school community as well as alumni, while being aware to not prejudice any investigations or criminal justice considerations. By acknowledging past wrongdoings we are seeing a positive step towards openness, transparency and rebuilding trust over time.
It's only through revealing past abuses that as a society we understand what we need to do to protect children, now and in our future generations, and keep them safe.
We are living through real change and I applaud the institutions that are on the front foot and doing what they can now. In doing so, we are contributing to a society that prioritises the safety of children and works together to put transparency and trust first.
Help and support for adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse is available from the ASCA professional support line on 1300 657 380, 9am- 5pm Monday-Sunday
ASCA President, Dr Cathy Kezelman's opinion piece has been published and can be found at: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/society-putting-child-safety-first-as-schools-forced-to-reveal-alleged-sex-abuse-20150419-1mmadc.html