What constitutes an institution in the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse?

Written by Andrew George. Partner,Doogue + George Defence Lawyers.

With the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse underway, we have taken a particular interest in the possible impacts and implications of the findings of this vast inquiry. We have previously written about our recently published information booklet entitled, “Dealing with allegations of sexual assault” and since, many copies of the brochure have been distributed including a number of downloads directly from our website.

The work of the Royal Commission continues and, we understand, soon the Commission and its staff will be turning their attention to the Victorian situation. In this context, it seems appropriate that we give a little attention to what it is the Royal Commission is authorized to investigate under its letters patent.

Formally, this is a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. However, by way of the letters patent which authorise the Royal Commission, the idea of what constitutes an institution is most likely broader than what many people would think. Many will, no doubt, consider that organisations such as the church, children’s homes and government departments are likely to be the focus of the Royal Commissions investigations.  However, the definition of what is an institution is very broad indeed. In the context of the Royal Commission, an institution is defined as:

“any public or private body, agency, association, club, institution, organization or other entity or group on entities of any kind (whether incorporated or unincorporated) and however described,”

whether or not that entity or group of entities exist or no longer exists.  It can include any entity which at any time provided:

“activities, facilities, programs or services of any kind that provide the means through which adults have contact with children, including through their families; but does not include the family”.

As can be garnered from this delineation, the idea of “institution” is very, very broad. The broadness of this definition is extended by the explanation contained within the letters patent of “institutional context”.

Without engaging in the fairly lengthy formal definition, it may extend the notion of responsibility well beyond the instant organization in which the sexual abuse is said to have occurred. This can be explained further by putting it in context. Let’s say, for example, a sporting club setting:

It may be alleged that a volunteer coach at a particular sporting club engaged in sexual abuse of a child or children. That club would clearly fall under the definition of an institution. However, the notion of institutional context may well be seen to extend that responsibility from that particular club to the umbrella organization for clubs of that type at, for example, a State or National level.  The broad scope of the Royal Commission’s enquiry is also extended by the definition of an “official” institution which includes, among other persons, a contractor to that institution who provides services to or for the institution.

It is worth noting that the Royal Commission in itself has extensive powers and discretion as to how it approaches its formidable task.

As noted above, the work of the Royal Commission is underway and ongoing. We have learned that a number of persons who were part of a voluntary committee of management at a community-based organisation have received letters from the Royal Commission inviting them to attend to discuss issues of sexual abuse within that institution. We have no doubt that this is only the beginning of a large number of these types of letters which will be sent by the Royal Commission as it proceeds with its investigations.

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