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Who is protected by the Royal Commissionís private hearings? The case of Wolston Park Hospital survivors

By Adele Chynoweth - posted Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Does the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse ensure that all those who want to be heard publicly are provided the chance? Royal Commissions are usually public investigations. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse strays from the legal norm, instead, comprising private sessions as well as a selection of public case studies. Does this new approach fulfill a democratic and transparent investigation of institutionalised child sexual abuse?

The Terms of Reference of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse were established, and six Commissioners were appointed, by the Governor-General of Australia in January 2013. Also in that year, the Commonwealth Royal Commissions Act 1902 was amended in order to allow for private hearings at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse so that survivors of abuse may, without taking an oath, disclose their experiences. The Commissioners, in addition to these private sessions, also select matters for public case studies.

Participation in the Royal Commission's private sessions is voluntary. These private hearings aim to provide protection to those who are traumatised and/or have special support needs. It is an offence, under the amended Royal Commissions Act 1902, to disclose information obtained at a private session, except when such information is used by the Commission to perform its duties or where the information is de-identified for use in a Commission report. The public element of the Commission is confined to a series of particular case studies.


Protective silence around private hearings has the potential to shelter victims. Some victims might not want to give public evidence and that right should not prevail over any perceived public interest to share the information.The Commissioners understand that privacy may assist the provision of a comfortable and safe place for survivors to speak, including children and young people, as well as those do not wish to be identified publicly. There is plenty of positive feedback from survivors, who have testified in private, about the professional and sensitive handling of their testimony by the Commissioners.

However, we would be wrong to assume that all survivors want to speak privately. One group of women survivors has lobbied, without success for their experiences to be heard as a public case study by the Commission. These survivors were former child inmates of an adult psychiatric facility run by the Queensland State Government. From the 1960s through to the 1980s, children were incarcerated in Wolston Park Hospital in Wacol, Queensland. This medical response to 'juvenile delinquents', in the absence of diagnoses of mental illness, was included in the report of the Queensland Committee on Youth Problems (1959), chaired by the-then Queensland Police Minister Alexander Dewar. Most of the children affected by this policy had endured poverty and had been sent to children's institutions prior to being transferred to Wolston Park. In addition to an associated absence of formal education and a nurturing social environment, former child inmates of Wolston Park recall being forced to take anti-psychotic medication, including Paraldehyde, Haloperidol and Mellaril. These survivors note that the administration of such drugs was not for therapeutic, but for custodial purposes. Such chemical straightjacketing facilitated their rape by male warders.

In 1997, some of these survivors sought legal support and one test case was put forward in the Supreme Court of Brisbane against the State of Queensland. In its defence, the State successfully pleaded that the action was barred by the Limitations of Action Act 1974. This Act states that legal actions for personal injury must be commenced within three years from the date of the injury. Victims of child sexual abuse are usually incapable of initiating civil action within this time frame. In 1998, former child inmates of Wolston Park Hospital were again denied a public hearing at the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions which excluded the abuse of children in adult psychiatrist facilities from its terms of reference. The Queensland Government did, however, make a formal apology in 2010 to former children under state care who were placed in adult mental hospitals.

In 2014, these women, as part of their plea for a public hearing, attended a private meeting with a community engagement officer from the Royal Commission in the hope of being granted a public legal hearing. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse, as laid out in the Royal Commissions Act 1902, has the power to call witnesses and authorise the application of search warrants. It can request documents and archival files. It could table medical research of long-term side effects for survivors, and any possible inter-generational outcomes for their children, of being force-fed anti-psychotic drugs. It could allow such evidence to be heard publicly, so that the media can report, health workers can hear, so that police ministers can learn from past policies and that voters can be informed.

Silence may protect, but as cultural anthropologist, Maria-Luisa Achino-Loeb reminds us, silence also informs human perceptions and identities. Silence selects and categorises. Silence informs our discussions, media reports, literary representation, our justice system and in turn, a nation's shared public history. Silence may lead us to inaccurately conclude that what is unspoken does not exist.

The silences that surround the private hearings of the Royal Commission and its associated public case-studies may lead us to assume, for example, that 30 percent of cases of institutionalised child sexual abuse is perpetrated by the Catholic Church and that 40 per cent occurs within independent schools. The silences that linger in the background while the spotlight ignites the public case studies may result in the Queensland Government escaping public criticism. The Royal Commission's private hearings mean that we may not be aware that the Queensland Government locked up children in adult psychiatric facilities, then, and has not amended the Queensland Limitations of Action Act 1974, now. Last year, the Victorian Government scrapped the time limit for civil action by survivors of child sexual abuse. The New South Wales Government is now following suit. Not so, Queensland.


The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse has enabled crucial private sessions in which participants can safely disclose their experiences. The case studies have enabled public hearings but the criteria for selection of subject matter are not clear. A nation has aimed collective vitriol at Cardinal Pell because the workings of the Catholic Church have been made public by the Royal Commission. We do not, similarly, urge the Queensland Government to give evidence about its former brutal policies. We do not make this insistence because the Royal Commission has kept this matter private. Only time will tell if former inmates of Wolston Park Hospital will be afforded a public voice by the Royal Commission, subsequent justice and an acknowledged place within our nation's narrative.

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About the Author

Dr Adele Chynoweth is a Visitor in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University and is also an international advisor for Welfare Stories: from the Edge of Society, a social history and justice project undertaken in Denmark, in collaboration between the Welfare Museum, Svendborg, the Prison Museum, Horsens, and the Centre for Welfare State Research, University of Southern Denmark.

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