Limitation Amendment (Child Abuse) Bill 2016

24th February 2016

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) [11.47 a.m.]: I dearly wish to contribute to debate on the Limitation Amendment (Child Abuse) Bill 2016. I acknowledge the Government, particularly the Attorney General, for bringing this bill before the House. The bill removes the legal limitation period for damages claims resulting from sexual abuse or serious physical abuse and other forms of abuse, including psychological abuse, that result from such inappropriate and highly damaging treatment of children. The bill recognises that it often takes survivors of childhood abuse many years to reach a point where they are able to speak of their ill treatment and summon the resolve to bring the perpetrators to court. As such, it is legislation that is strongly welcomed and significantly overdue. Hopefully it will provide some comfort to those who suffered abuse at the hands of religious clergy and those within other institutions, while also giving victims who have felt frustrated and let down by existing legislation the confidence to come forward.

This Parliament is acutely aware of the impact that child sexual abuse has had on many people within my electorate of Lake Macquarie and within the wider Hunter region. It was, of course, largely the relentless work of the Newcastle Herald and journalist Joanne McCarthy—which has been acknowledged by others in this place today—that gave rise to the current royal commission into cover-ups of abuse within churches and other institutions, as well as the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry presided over by Commissioner Margaret Cunneen. I acknowledge former Premier Barry O'Farrell, who, following questions—I am sure from others but certainly from me—in question time in this House calling on the State Government and the Premier to institute a royal commission, at least triggered the Special Commission of Inquiry. That was a very important part of that process.

It is also important to acknowledge the work of the police officers and other professionals involved in the investigations and prosecutions who were instrumental in bringing much of these matters to light. I make particular mention of the contributions from Deputy Premier Troy Grant in his former role as a police detective, former Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox, and Lake Macquarie Detective Sergeant Kristi Faber, who was a key member of Strike Force Georgiana that investigated child sexual abuse in the Hunter. We must mention the bravery of victims who came forward and told their stories, which brought to light the abhorrent practices that we now know were entrenched in some religious institutions. The fight for victims of these insidious crimes has come a long way and I have great confidence that the bill will provide more steps forward in the healing process for victims and in bringing offenders to justice.

The bill is important because it removes the current limitations on when actions of historic cases of child abuse can proceed, relating not only to sexual abuse but also to all other forms of systemic physical abuse. It is a disturbing yet understandable reality that many victims of child sexual abuse never share the deplorable experiences they suffered as children. Other victims take many years, sometimes decades, to find the courage to release the burden of the secret scars of their childhood or adolescence in a court or public forum. We must have legislation that allows their voices to be heard at a time they need it to be heard. We cannot close the door and say, "Sorry, you are too late."

I come from the Hunter, where there is much concern about these issues. I attended St Pius X High School, which was the epicentre of much of the sexual abuse in the Hunter. I was not a victim of that abuse but, on reflection, I know I was there at the time when many of my fellow students were being abused—and one was one too many. However, I stand here defiantly and proudly say that I suffered the psychopathic physical abuse of the teachers who were part of the regime at St Pius. The abject cruelty that was dished out by way of corporal punishment confirms in my mind that there were victims of sexual abuse also. I am pleased to see the light being shone on those incidents so that those victims are able to seek redress.

Almost four years ago I drew the attention of the House to a man named John Pirona. He was a Lake Macquarie resident, a wonderful husband and father of two young children. John was a popular member of Fire and Rescue NSW. He lived on the other side of the lake, in the electorate of Swansea. I was then mayor of Lake Macquarie and knew John, as many people did. He disappeared and people went looking for him. Unfortunately, when he was discovered it was found he had taken his own life. He was no longer able to bear the pain that he carried from being abused as a child by a Catholic priest. Those offences occurred in the 1970s, almost 40 years before John wrote a note to his family and ended his private life of pain. He was not able to talk about what happened to him, let alone seek justice or compensation.

Many victims carry the knowledge of their abuse to their graves. There are many who have suffered who we do not know about. The more doors that are opened to those who have suffered, the better chance we have of providing them with appropriate responses, opportunities and outcomes on a personal level and in a legal sense. This bill opens a door to those victims, and I commend it to the House. I am aware that concerns have been raised about the qualification of serious physical abuse and the lack of definition around the term "serious". This concern was raised yesterday by The Greens MLC the Hon. David Shoebridge during a crossbench briefing. I know the Government is aware of that concern, and I trust it will consider any questions that might be raised or explain any amendments that are needed to address it. I appreciate the courts have a role to determine what falls within the ambit of offences that are listed in the legislation. However, it is important that we provide the utmost clarity in those cases where people have been exposed to long-term suffering.

It is ironic that at present there is an ongoing national debate about the call for Cardinal George Pell to return to Australia to appear in person before his accusers and give evidence about what he knew of child sexual abuse in his domain. Although much of that occurred in Melbourne, Cardinal Pell has a significant history in New South Wales. I will not canvass the matter too much, but the feeling in the community is palpable that this issue must be addressed. I am offended and, while I apologise for my sentiments, I do not care about the feelings and sensitivities of the Catholic Church. I want it to address the sins of its fathers who committed crimes of abuse against members of the community. In November 2012 I thanked Government and Opposition members for the respectful and bipartisan debate that allowed the Special Commission of Inquiry to proceed. I trust this bill receives the same level of consideration and support. Once again, I thank members of the Opposition and the Government, and particularly the Attorney General for introducing the bill to the House.

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