Bold promises we longed to hear, but they cannot right all the wrongs

TRUTH, justice and redress: bold promises for a royal commission, but ones Australians have been longing to hear when it comes to child abuse.

At first sight, victims and their supporters are greatly heartened by Friday's announcements: both the commissioners and the terms of reference seem excellent. The reasons why the inquiry was necessary - the suicides and premature deaths, the plight of survivors, the concealment and protection of predators, the barriers to justice, the need for law reform and more - are all recognised.

The government has promised the necessary resources, including for advocacy groups, given a long and extendable time frame (but balanced that with a request for an interim report after 18 months), and set up a mechanism by which police can investigate and prosecute as the commission keeps working.

In some ways the most vital work the six commissioners will do over their three-year mandate will take place in the first two months, as they decide how to operate and who they will hear. There are two mutually exclusive imperatives: to be thorough yet also timely.

There were 800 submissions just on the terms of reference. Far more will want to tell their stories, and the institutions need to reply. Although the commission can investigate any institution, there is little doubt that allegations about the Roman Catholic Church will dominate, as they have the Victorian parliamentary inquiry into how the churches handled child abuse.

But it is not alone.

The Salvation Army has an appalling record in Victoria, and state governments will face some awkward questions.

The Victorian inquiry is going to continue its work, resuming on January 23, and this is a good decision. As its chairwoman Georgie Crozier said on Friday, it has already made significant progress. And the shocking headlines produced helped make the commission inevitable. It couldn't replace the commission, but it can help it.

But amid all the optimism, there are several grounds for caution. The sheer scale of the task is daunting. The recent royal commission into the Victorian bushfires, which took just over a year, had in the hearing room at any one time three commissioners, four or five barristers, up to 20 solicitors, plus witnesses and an army of IT and administrative staff. This is going to be considerably bigger, especially if it works in several venues.

Dividing the commissioners, and dividing evidence into formal and informal, will involve their own legal niceties that experienced lawyers say will need to be carefully considered.

Perhaps the most difficult task will be managing expectations. This Royal Commission can achieve a vast amount, but it cannot right all wrongs and it cannot offer categorical certainties. The commissioners will not be like Moses ascending to the top of Mt Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments. Some careful listening and serious thinking awaits them.

Their biggest challenge is to change the culture in the institutions, especially the Catholic Church. The church is saying the right things about full co-operation, and its new lay-led advisory council seems promising, but the church around the world always says the right things then fails to match the rhetoric. The evidence from the Vatican is that on this journey of 1000 miles it has only taken the first faltering step.

This story Bold promises we longed to hear, but they cannot right all the wrongs first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.