The Prime Minister’s announcement this week of an open-ended royal commission into child sexual abuse will please many, but the inquiry has the potential to become the biggest witch-hunt since the notorious Salem trials in Massachusetts in 1692, with an equally diabolical impact on Australian society.

Think for a moment what Ms Gillard has done. She has launched a legal commission that has no boundaries in terms of its duration or scope, which has the power to consider the possibility of compensation to victims across an unlimited timeframe.

She appears to have done so with little regard for the consequences, legal, financial or societal, at a time when a state parliamentary inquiry is conducting hearings into sexual abuse in Victoria and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has announced a commission of inquiry into specific allegations in the Hunter region.

Like so many decisions of this federal government it is a knee-jerk reaction. The parameters for the royal commission seem to be determined, like Salem, more out of fear than community benefit. Not wanting to exclude any group from making submissions or giving evidence, Ms Gillard has left the duration of the inquiry open, saying that was ‘not knowable’ and it would ‘take quite some time’.

Not wanting to discriminate against victims from a previous century, there is no range of dates that will be the focus of the inquiry. It is all-encompassing.

Admittedly, the terms of reference for the commission will not be released until next month, but Ms Gillard stated this week that it will examine ‘all religious organisations’, state government care groups, not-for-profit bodies, schools and responders to abuse complaints, such as child services agencies, and the police. Boy Scout leaders, sport coaches and — in the light of the Jimmy Savile BBC scandal, I daresay TV presenters — will not be immune.

It is not only alleged perpetrators who are in the commission’s sights; it will also seek out, Ms Gillard says, those who were ‘complicit’ or who by ‘averting their eyes’ committed acts of omission. The question remains as to just how far will this be allowed to go — and at what cost?

First it must be said that sexual abuse of children is a loathsome, contemptible crime in any form. It must be investigated thoroughly whenever allegations arise and the accused prosecuted vigorously under the law if it is found there is a case to answer. Criticism of the proposed royal commission also should not be taken as a lack of compassion for the victims.

Such is the level to which public debate has sunk under this government that it is necessary to make these points, lest critics are demonised as paedophile supporters, in the same manner as people sceptical of the impact of so-called carbon pollution on climate are ridiculed as ‘climate change deniers’. This may be the reason there has been such enthusiastic support for the Gillard inquiry and little objective assessment.

There are three major concerns over the royal commission, as proposed:

• Until a date is set for a report to be handed to the government, this commission has the potential to become almost a permanent judicial arm dealing with paedophilia, not unlike the Independent Commission Against Corruption in NSW, but without the specific referrals.

•  It is unclear what standard of evidence will be applied. As this subject is highly emotive, as was that before the national inquiry into the so-called stolen generations, the commission could follow the lead of Ronald Wilson and allow evidence based on belief rather than fact, without the need for corroboration.

• Both the first and second points make it possible for untested accusations to be made against people or groups who will not be assessed until an interim or final report is released by the commissioners — a time that could be years away.

It is here that the potential to damage society’s values — not to mention the reputation of individuals — is immense. Suspicion can be cast over such wide groups of people that the system of trust under which our community exists is fatally eroded. Who wants to be a volunteer children’s sports coach or an adult male in charge of any children’s activity under these conditions? Or a department store Santa Claus?

One of the problems with Ms Gillard’s national inquiry is its breadth. Prior to her announcement last week, the focus had been on religious groups, and the Catholic church in particular. Now most sectors of society will be open to allegations against them so that the inquiry is not seen as a full-on attack on the churches.

Tony Abbott said he would support a royal commission that examined more than just the Catholic church. ‘Any investigation must be wide-ranging, must consider any evidence of the abuse of children in Australia, and should not be limited to the examination of any one institution,’ Mr Abbott said. ‘It must include all organisations — government and non-government — where there is evidence of sexual abuse.’

He certainly got his wish, but it is to the detriment of some of the expectations for the inquiry. The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, welcomed the commission, saying it would allow the air to be cleared over the church and ‘the truth uncovered’. The reality is that the Catholic church will remain a prime focus, as its detractors and those of Cardinal Pell will not allow otherwise — and will make claims that do not have to stand up to the more rigorous scrutiny of the courts.

With the breadth of the inquiry, more reputations of innocent parties are likely to be tarnished than the guilty punished. Any recommendations of criminal prosecutions will be vexed if obtained by any coercive powers of the commission because, in the majority of cases, it is ruled admissible in ensuing court actions.

Certainly, a royal commission can make recommendations that could establish a framework to provide better protection for children, particularly those in state care. However, this end could be achieved without a national inquiry. In the meantime, groups of people face the prospect of becoming innocent victims of a witch-hunt, convicted in some cases, undoubtedly, on little more than spectral evidence — the beliefs or visions of their accusers — which were used to condemn the women of Salem 320 years ago.

 

Ian Moore is a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and the founding editor of the Sunday Herald Sun