Justice fears for child sex abuse victims

Karlis Salna

The ability of the courts to secure justice for child sexual abuse victims may be diminishing, despite decades of law reform, the head of a royal commission says.

Justice Peter McClellan gave the warning as data covering almost 20 years showed a massive fall in the number of child sexual abuse cases that make it to court.

An analysis of police and court data from NSW suggests a steady increase in the number of incidents of child sexual assault offences reported between 1995 and 2013, including a spike following the two-year Wood Royal Commission which concluded in 1997.

But for the same period, the proportion of child sexual assaults reported to police where charges were laid declined dramatically, from around 60 per cent in 1995, to around 15 per cent in 2013.

The figures have raised concerns the trend is being replicated across other jurisdictions.

Speaking on Thursday at the International Criminal Law Congress in Melbourne, Justice McClellan said that over the past three decades there had been more than 300 inquiries which had touched upon or been concerned with the sexual abuse of children.

As of last Friday, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had conducted 2452 private sessions, received 2601 written accounts from survivors, their family or friends. Another 1448 people are in the queue awaiting a session.

Justice McClellan said numerous private sessions with abuse survivors over the course of the inquiry had reinforced that criminal justice was far more important for victims than any compensation or redress.

"In spite of the issues being well known, and in spite of decades of reform, the preliminary results from some of our research suggest that the opportunity to secure justice for victims of child sexual abuse through the criminal justice system may in fact be decreasing, rather than increasing," he said.

"The rate of attrition in sexual abuse cases, and in child sexual abuse cases in particular, has long been notoriously high. But if it is increasing this is troubling.

"In light of the decades of reform, we would be entitled to expect it to be getting considerably better."

Justice McClellan said further reform must be considered, including introducing special child sex abuse courts, and even eliminating juries.

The decline in prosecutions also raised the prospect that complainants find the criminal justice system too traumatic or damaging, he said.

"It may be that their needs are met through other mechanisms."

"If the system is too damaging or traumatic for complainants, then we must consider how the system could be improved for the complainant, while still delivering a fair trial for the accused."

Justice McClellan said there should also be further examination of the use of specialist child sexual abuse units within police, as well as whether the current sentencing options are appropriate.

The royal commission, established by the former Labor federal government, is continuing to examine allegations involving more than 1000 individual institutions across Australia.