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‘We Say Sorry’: Australia Formally Apologizes to Victims of Child Sexual Abuse

SYDNEY — Australia sought to atone for a decadeslong epidemic of child sexual abuse Monday as Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued an official apology that acknowledged the government’s systemic failures to protect the nation’s children.

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Rick Rojas
, New York Times

SYDNEY — Australia sought to atone for a decadeslong epidemic of child sexual abuse Monday as Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued an official apology that acknowledged the government’s systemic failures to protect the nation’s children.

The apology, delivered to a gathering of victims in Canberra, the nation’s capital, was the culmination of a five-year government inquiry that exposed widespread sexual abuse. The investigation was perhaps the most far-reaching inquiry of its kind undertaken by any country, examining abuse across a range of religious and secular institutions. Investigators found that thousands of children were sexually abused and countless instances of accusations were ignored or covered up.

“We are sorry,” Morrison said in the Great Hall of Parliament, as victims, advocates and officials held hands. “Sorry you are not protected. Sorry you are not listened to. We are sorry for refusing to trust the words of children, for not believing you. As we say sorry, we also say we believe you.”

The occasion served as a solemn moment of reckoning. The findings of the investigation, which were released in December, laid bare the scale of the abuse — in schools, churches, sporting clubs and foster homes — and also the lengths to which many institutions went to shield abusers.

Dozens of victims and their families gathered in Canberra for the ceremonies surrounding the apology Monday, and the events were televised across the country. The apology offered a rare display of harmony in Parliament, as Morrison and the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, echoed each other in expressing the nation’s contrition.

But the day also reflected the depths of the victims’ anguish and anger, as some in the crowd heckled the prime minister or stormed from the room in protest.

“He kept saying ‘sorry, sorry, sorry,'” said Paul Auchettl, whose abuse by a Catholic brother started when he was 11. “It’s like he didn’t know what else to say. We need somebody to outline a plan forward. It’s not enough to say sorry.”

Officials announced their intention to issue a formal national apology soon after the findings from the investigation, conducted as part of a royal commission, were released last year. The commission, the highest form of investigation in Australia, was announced in 2012. The panel heard from more than 1,000 witnesses over nearly 15 months, officials said.

“It is not a case of a few rotten apples,” the report said. “Society’s major institutions have seriously failed.”

In August, Roman Catholic leaders in Australia responded to the inquiry with their own lengthy report, apologizing for abuse by priests and the church’s failure to confront the problem.

“Until trust is rebuilt,” said Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, “all the apologies in the world will miss the mark.”

The church agreed to adopt many of the inquiry’s recommendations but rejected a push to force priests to disclose accusations of sexual abuse heard during confession.

It was not the first time that Australia’s leaders employed a public apology as a highly visible platform to acknowledge the nation’s sins. In 2008, Kevin Rudd, the prime minister then, apologized to Australia’s indigenous population for policies that plucked aboriginal children from their families and compelled them to reject their cultures in favor of assimilation, creating what is known as the “Stolen Generation.”

This time, language included in the apology was formulated by way of an extensive process, involving the input of victims and advocates. Sessions to collect suggestions were held in cities around the country.

The result Monday reflected the distress and raw emotion that surrounds the issue.

“Today, Australia confronts a trauma, an abomination hiding in plain sight for far too long,” Morrison said in an emotional speech on the floor of Parliament, his voice quavering as he decried the “trust broken, innocence betrayed.”

“I believe you,” Morrison added, referring to the victims. “We believe you. Your country believes you.”

“Hear, hear,” other lawmakers replied.

Some moments seemed almost joyous, like when the Great Hall filled with applause as Julia Gillard, the former prime minister who initiated the commission, was called to give an unplanned speech.

“It took many years to get to this moment,” she said.

There were also quiet tears and outbursts of frustration, with some acknowledging the disagreement over the best ways to provide support for victims. After the apology, many of the victims went outside to huddle around a sculpture of a tree erected in tribute to abuse survivors. They tied onto its branches long orange, blue, green and red ribbons that fluttered in the afternoon wind.

Survivors of sexual abuse had traveled to Canberra from around the country. Auchettl, 60, had come from Ballarat, a town where authorities uncovered a pedophile ring at local Catholic schools. Officials said as many as 30 victims had died by suicide; Auchettl’s younger brother was one of them.

The public apology did little to assuage his pain or his frustration. Yet Auchettl found comfort in being around so many others who had endured struggles similar to his. After all, he said, the torment of sexual abuse is often private.

“I found my tribe,” he said, “but the tribe is quite lost.”

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