The great unburdening: After a spilling of secrets comes hope of national healing

A few of the tormented could be found almost every day attending the long hearings of the royal commission.

Some became familiar figures, spending adjournments on courtroom steps, smoking anxiously or chatting or silently smouldering. Bearing witness.

Vast numbers more tried to go about their lives anonymously, just as they had for years, holding it in until they could no longer, and began telling their stories. Too many lay in cemeteries, having finally been crushed by carrying around the weight of what had happened to them.

Call it a modern unburdening.

A spilling of toxic secrets. An exposure of evil.

The figures tell something of the extent of it.

The royal commission into institutional responses to instances of child sexual abuse received 41,770 phone calls from those who could be silent no longer. There were 25,770 emails and letters, many of them detailing the unthinkable. The commission itself held more than 8000 private sessions and 57 public hearings.

Established by the government of Julia Gillard at the start of 2013, the commission was supposed to lodge an initial report no later than June 30, 2014, and a final report by December 31, 2015. It quickly became obvious that the lake of pain it was exploring and the swamp of religious and institutional corruption it was wading were far deeper than imagined. In September 2014, a two-year extension was granted.

And now, with the unburdening done, it is time for a national settling.

Apologies, of course, are always too late.

Les Johnson, who grew up in orphanages in the Newcastle and Gosford areas, sits outside the royal commission hearings in 2013. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Les Johnson, who grew up in orphanages in the Newcastle and Gosford areas, sits outside the royal commission hearings in 2013. Photo: Kate Geraghty

And yet, an apology is demanded, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s promise on Wednesday of a national apology to the survivors, victims and families of institutional child sexual abuse is surely among the most important of all official responses to the immense range of recommendations made by the commission.

The choice of October 22 to deliver the apology is carefully and properly chosen.

As Turnbull said, the date will coincide with national children's week, a date chosen to bring together the nation’s acknowledgement of the past and its commitment to the future wellbeing and safety of children.

Acknowledgement is what many survivors clearly crave. Acknowledgement that those in power had wronged them when they were defenceless; acknowledgement that finally, after so long suffering in silence, their stories shoved aside or denied, they are believed.

And acknowledgment that heavy steps will be taken to prevent it happening to children now and in the future.

To know the power of an apology for institutional horror, you need only consider previous such events: the national apology to the Indigenous Stolen Generations; to former child migrants, known as the forgotten Australians; to the victims and families of forced adoption.

On each occasion, an outpouring of grief long buried was evinced, allowing, according to many of those affected, the beginning of a healing.

Australians must now hope for a new healing for those damaged by sexual abuse.

Equally important is that governments follow on with practical and legal measures to prevent a repeat of the depravity that lurked unchecked within churches, schools, orphanages and other institutions and organisations charged with the care of Australia’s children.

And if some of those measures - bursting the sanctity of the confessional, for instance - are not welcomed by church leaders, so be it.

The right of a child to safety from predators - a right denied to those tormented, often enough by clergy - and brave enough to bear witness to a royal commission, must surely come first.