Conference Keynote. Research to recommendations

Content type
Family Matters article

April 2017


In this article, Commissioner and Justice Jennifer Coate describes the aims and work of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, including its terms of reference, approaches to information gathering, research program, the issue of disclosure, and the Royal Commission's goal to produce recommendations that are actually implementable. Already, the Royal Commission's research has provided a strong evidence base for reform.

The idea of translating "research to results" is at the heart of one of the key mechanisms of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (the Royal Commission). In an endeavour to meet our terms of reference, the Royal Commission has engaged in a major research program, which has assisted us to arrive at recommendations that are likely to span policy, legislative reform, structural reform and administrative reform.

Royal Commission terms of reference

The Royal Commission's work is constructed around terms of reference that were issued by the Commonwealth government on 11 January 2013. The introduction to those terms of reference acknowledged that all forms of child sexual abuse are a gross violation of a child's right to protection under Australia's international obligations, as well as a crime under Australian law. The terms also acknowledge that the sexual abuse of a child and other related unlawful and improper treatment of children has a long-term cost to individuals, to the economy and to our society.

Sadly, the Royal Commission's work bears out this reality with stark and painful clarity.

Under our terms of reference, we are required to inquire into institutional responses to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse. There is a prevention aspect to the Royal Commission's work: in particular, to inquire into what governments and institutions should do to better protect children in the future. This includes investigating best practices in the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse and in the responses to those reports.

Our terms of reference require us to report on ways to reduce or eliminate impediments to appropriate responses, and to alleviate the impact of institutional child sexual abuse. Our work also includes addressing justice for victims through redress, criminal justice processes and support services.

If you pause to think about the breadth of our work, it is not surprising that after the initial three-year appointment of the Royal Commission its term was extended for another two years. So now, the full life of the commission will be five years.

Our terms of reference define an "institution" broadly. The definition includes effectively any entity or group of entities (including one that no longer exists) that provides or has at any time provided activities, facilities, programs or services of any kind that provide the means through which adults have contact with children. However, our definition specifically excludes the family as an institution.

While our inquiry will not specifically examine the issue of child sexual abuse outside institutional contexts (e.g., in families), our terms of reference state that: "Any recommendations you make are likely to improve the response to all forms of child sexual abuse in all contexts". That, of course, is our hope - and I consider it a well-placed hope.

Much of what's emerging in our work has clear relevance to the detection and reporting of all forms of child sexual abuse (such as, our work on systems of investigation and prosecution of child sexual abuse generally), as well as to the deepening understanding of the impact of sexual abuse upon a child in the short, medium and long term and the need for trauma-informed services for children and adult survivors of sexual abuse in their childhood.

These matters, in turn, will have relevance to child protection, to family law, to police and criminal justice legal systems and to service supports and responses.

Approaches to information gathering

We use a three-pronged approach to information and evidence gathering, which we refer to as the "three pillars" of our work. These pillars are:

  • our private sessions, in which Commissioners bear witness to the experiences of victim survivors;
  • the public hearings; and
  • our research and policy program.

The information and evidence collected through these three pillars will directly inform the development of our findings, the substance of our analysis, our conclusions and ultimately our recommendations.

A most significant pillar of our work is listening to victims/survivors who wish to be heard in a private and confidential setting. Early in the life of the Royal Commission, we realised that we did not have a legal mechanism for conducting the private sessions work in the way we thought appropriate for this subject matter. Fortunately, the government was amenable to amending the legislation to allow us to work in that way.

The private sessions are meetings between one or two Commissioners, victim/survivor attendees and the support people that they wish to bring into the room with them. It's an opportunity for the victim/survivor to tell their story in their own words, in a private, confidential and supported atmosphere. The sessions afford attendees the opportunity to have their story heard and acknowledged by the Royal Commission.

The vast majority of people attending private sessions expressed the importance of that acknowledgement. Many come with a stated aim of wanting to break their silence to help stop the scourge of the sexual abuse of children. To indicate the enormity of what that has meant for a number of people in our country, as of 1 July 2016, the Commissioners have held 5,502 private sessions. We have also received hundreds of written accounts from survivors or their families and friends. Each one of these written accounts has been read and acknowledged by a Commissioner.

There are presently 1,523 people awaiting a session with us. Throughout 2016, we have continued to receive an average of 38 new requests per week for a private session, even though we've been operating private sessions since May 2013. We are averaging approximately 36 sessions a week, so you can readily see that we are struggling to keep up with the demand.

Most of the people attending our private sessions are adults, although we do have a small number of children attending. We have a prisoner engagement program as well, in which private sessions are being conducted in prisons. Considerable numbers of prisoners have requested the opportunity to give us their account of their sexual abuse as a child in an institutional context.

We've engaged with a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their advocacy and support groups in rural, regional, remote and urban areas.

We are also collecting a range of de-identified data, with the express permission of the people who attend the private sessions. The de-identified data include:

  • institution type;
  • the time between the abuse and the first disclosure;
  • the barriers to disclosure;
  • gender and age of victim/survivor and perpetrator; and
  • impacts, as described by the victim/survivor.

These data produce a profound collection of information, which will tell its own terrible story back to us as a nation.

Our first Interim Report (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2014) provided preliminary information about the themes coming through in the private sessions.

Barriers to disclosure

A particular theme from that report is the theme of disclosure. An analysis of some of our early private sessions data showed that the average time to disclose childhood sexual abuse is about 22 years, with men taking longer to disclose than women. As is widely known, the most common reported barriers to disclosure are shame, embarrassment, self-blame and self-doubt. We've also picked up other common barriers and themes being expressed to us, which are:

  • fear of not being believed;
  • feeling like there was no-one to disclose to;
  • not understanding that what was happening was sexual abuse;
  • threats and inducements to remain silent; and
  • complex and enmeshed relationships with the perpetrator.

We have been hearing from some people that they disclosed what was happening to them at the time, and were not believed. Some people were even punished, and punished brutally in some cases.

The role of feelings of shame, embarrassment and self-blame in keeping people silent has been well understood in the research in the last couple of decades at least. But it is worth noting that despite the apparent advances in breaking down the silence, there are still relatively contemporary reports emerging from private sessions demonstrating that people are still grappling with feelings of shame, embarrassment and self-blame.

This appears to be especially so in what we would generally describe as "closed" or "closely-knit" communities. Tragically, the evidence emerging in some public hearings is demonstrating that fear of shunning and ostracism has been well founded in a number of those groups.

There's also a substrata of victims - young boys - who fear shunning and ostracism in a particular context. Males are coming through in higher numbers than women to the private sessions (roughly around 60-65% male). Many men coming in report that they feared being branded as being gay if they reported a sexual attack by another male, or feared making themselves the subject of beatings and bullying from other boys. Consequently, their abuse went unreported for many years, suppressed by such fear.

The nature of some of the threats and inducements used to keep children silent is being reported to us by people attending our private sessions. It speaks to why there have been huge levels of detrimental effects upon some of the people who are coming to talk with us. It also makes clear why reporting can sometimes take years, if not decades.

Examples of such threats and inducements include a child of faith who is told by an abusive priest, a reverend or a religious brother, that God would punish them if they told anyone; or conversely, that God would reward them, or that they had been chosen by God to engage in this activity.

There are accounts by people who report being showered with gifts, given special treatment and told they were special by abusive teachers, sports coaches, youth leaders or religious personnel. These sorts of inducements in institutional settings (e.g., a teacher rewarding a student for good work) can often present as initially plausible and acceptable behaviour to the child. That type of behaviour has also been found to be confusing for adults associated with the institution who have reported being concerned about their observations but reluctant to "think the worst". People have also told us that delaying reporting can become a barrier in itself. People have reported that, initially, as children, they didn't have the words to describe what was happening, and then by the time they did have the words and the maturity to understand it, a number of years had passed and this made them feel this would make their report less credible. For others, they've told us that it felt like a retrograde step to go back to the traumatic memory of the abuse they had suppressed or repressed for so long.

We've also been told, in terms of barriers to disclosure, of children's reluctance to report because of the perception that their parents would be devastated. Therefore, the child sought to protect the parent from that distress. This is a recurring theme in the faith-based institutions, where a child's parents are committed to the faith and are perceived by the child to be devout. It's also regularly reported among those who were abused in independent and private school settings where their family had spent a lot of money and made sacrifices to send the child to that particular school.

Factors assisting disclosure

During the course of our private sessions and public hearings, we have been receiving information about factors that may assist children to report sexual abuse.

Some people have reported that concern for another child, or children, either at the time or early into their adulthood, has been a catalyst for them to report. This has been particularly marked in circumstances where the abuser and children were in out-of-home care placements such as orphanages or foster care placements.

Another example is of children reporting to adults or peers, in the wake of that child's participation in a school-based prevention program. The Royal Commission has commissioned research into school-based prevention programs and published one paper (Pitts, 2015) considering the efficacy of preschool prevention programs.

People have also reported that what has assisted them to disclose is being asked in a sensitive and appropriate way by a trusted and caring or compassionate adult. This approach has also assisted them to proceed through to a decision to report and, in some cases, to proceed with an investigation and prosecution.

The Royal Commission has made 1,606 referrals to police and law enforcement agencies to date.

The impact of sexual abuse

In terms of the impact of childhood sexual abuse, almost nine in ten victim/survivors making contact with the Royal Commission report impacts on their health, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and lack of trust in authority. Victims/survivors also commonly report impacts on relationships. We often hear about the secondary impacts on their families. Impacts on education and economic circumstances are another common feature of victims/survivors' accounts.

The context of sexual abuse

In terms of institution types, our Interim Report (Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, 2014) found that many victim/survivors were reporting abuse out of the now closed reformatories and orphanages and children's homes. However, educational institutions were also commonly reported.

In 2014, we reported that nine out of ten alleged perpetrators were male. Those figures are fluctuating a little bit now, but it hovers somewhere around 90%, and at some stages trends up to 95% male. Of those alleged perpetrators being reported to us, they were most likely to be members of the clergy or religious orders, followed by teachers and residential care workers.

A number of victim/survivors who were abused in out-of-home care settings reported that they were initially sexually abused by a family member in their home, removed from home for that reason and then sexually abused in their out-of-home care placement, including in foster care.

Public hearings

The Royal Commission's public hearings engage in a more detailed examination of how specific institutions responded to actual incidents of child sexual abuse, looking for systemic issues across institutional settings. As we reported at June 2014, victim/survivors had reported over 1,000 separate institutions, and that number has grown steadily since that date. We've endeavoured to get a representative range of the reported institutions and we've completed 40 public hearings to date.

Twenty-two of our case study reports have been tabled in parliament (available on our website1). We anticipate our next case study into the sexual abuse of children with a disability will add to the work we've already been doing with respect to this particularly vulnerable group.

The Royal Commission's research program

In the research component of our work, we have been able to initiate a very significant research program that will advance our understanding of the evidence and information we are gathering and contribute to the creation of an evidence base for our recommendations. The research program is directed at building on, rather than duplicating, the existing body of research. It's aimed at covering historical, current and future issues across four broad areas:

  • prevention;
  • identification;
  • response; and
  • justice for victims.

To provide a sense of the scale of that research, our program consists of over 100 projects, with over 70 relevant experts in the field, both in Australia and internationally, in more than 30 universities and research centres.

Under the leadership of Associate Professor Leah Bromfield (Deputy Director of the Australian Centre for Child Protection at the University of South Australia), we have established several advisory groups to guide us on specific research projects, as well as provide oversight and review to those projects. We also have external experts working with our internal subject matter experts, who come from a range of disciplines, including criminology, social history, psychology and social work, and law.

Our research program uses a diverse range of methods, including data collection, literature reviews, legislative reviews, historical analysis and primary research.

We have 24 research reports published to date on our website,2 and another 76 research projects either completed, under review or still underway.

In some circumstances the research will assist the legal team to develop questions or parts of an investigation in a public hearing. The research may inform the backdrop for us having round-table discussions and forums on particular topics or subject areas. We also use some participants (with expertise or personal experience) to assist in the development of our analysis or conclusions in specific areas of inquiry.

Given the breadth of our task, the Royal Commission's research needs to look across state borders, research disciplines, cultures, religious affiliations, government departments and a broad range of institutions (including schools, sports and recreation organisations, churches, religious groups and many others).

Among our challenges will be to arrive at recommendations that are evidence-based and specific enough to cover particular issues that have emerged. However, the recommendations also need to be general enough to be able to be implemented across a range of institutions and different contexts from rural and remote communities to multicultural urban centres.

Developing child-safe organisations

The Royal Commission is undertaking research on the development of child-safe organisations. We are endeavouring to meet the expectation that we will provide guidance and conclusions and, indeed, recommendations for the key elements of a child-safe institution. Accordingly, we commissioned research from the Children and Youth Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology to help us identify those common elements. We then took this information and tested it through a child-safe organisation research study, jointly undertaken by the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales and the Parenting Research Centre. The research confirmed agreement among the experts on the characteristics of a child-safe organisation.

The Royal Commission is now giving further consideration to the elements outlined in this research, with a view to reaching a concluded position. That said, the commission's position will also be informed by our exposure to all of the accounts that we are hearing in private sessions, as well as public hearings.

Getting from research to recommendations

Our research agenda includes a significant criminal justice component. It's an area in which we have published a significant and ground-breaking piece of work focused on jury reasoning and, in particular, jury reasoning in joint and separate trials of child sexual abuse. This is the largest study ever undertaken of jury behaviour in regards to child sexual abuse. It involves 90 mock-jury deliberations using more than 1,000 people, who were taken from lists of people in New South Wales eligible to serve as jurors. That research has now been published (Goodman-Delahunty, Cossins, & Martschuk, 2016) and the results of it will be invaluable to the Royal Commission's work. It provides valuable insights for our legal policy work.

The Royal Commission has already published two final reports: one in the area of victim redress and civil litigation and the second on Working with Children Checks. These reports contain a total of 138 recommendations.

Our research has also examined how to produce recommendations that are actually implementable. This will assist us to produce recommendations that are based on evidence, that can be implemented and that respond to contemporary issues.

To assist with this, we commissioned research (Parenting Research Centre, 2015) that examined the level of implementation of recommendations from past relevant inquiries. The work involved interviews with 43 key stakeholders and a survey of 44 public servants. It examined recommendations from past relevant inquiries, finding that about half were implemented in full (Parenting Research Centre, 2015). This research examined the nature and form of recommendations most commonly implemented in full, and analysed and commented upon what seemed to provide the elements of "implementability". At the conclusion of the Royal Commission in December 2017, we will present our final recommendations on laws, policies, procedures, practices and systems to strengthen the prevention of, and response to, the sexual abuse of children in institutions or in institutional contexts. Our research, in combination with our case studies and private sessions, will provide a strong evidence base for reform.

This Royal Commission provides the opportunity to tell the national story of children, sexual abuse and institutions, so we can lay the foundations for a new story - one that provides a safer future for children in our nation.


1 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Case Studies: <>.

2 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, published research projects: <>.


  • Goodman-Delahunty, J., Cossins, A., & Martschuk, N. (2016). Jury reasoning in joint and separate trials of institutional child sexual abuse: An empirical study. Sydney: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved from <>.
  • Parenting Research Centre. (2015). Implementation of recommendations arising from previous inquiries of relevance to the Royal Commission. Sydney: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved from <>.
  • Pitts, C. (2015). Child sexual abuse prevention programs for pre-schoolers: A synthesis of current evidence. Sydney: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved from <>.
  • Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. (2014). Interim report. Sydney: Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved from <>.

Justice Jennifer Coate is a Judge of the Family Court of Australia. She is currently one of six Royal Commissioners appointed by the Australian government to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This article is based on the keynote address given by Justice Jennifer Coate at the 16th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference: Research to results - Using evidence to improve outcomes for families, Melbourne, 8 July 2016.