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Thousands of survivors told their stories of institutional child sexual abuse to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The impact of those stories on solicitors and other staff working at the Royal Commission was profound. Solicitor ANNA VERNEY, who worked at the Royal Commission, writes how the Royal Commission’s approach to vicarious trauma and the wellbeing of all staff has lessons for all lawyers.

On 12 November 2012, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her intention to establish the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Almost five years later, in December, the Royal Commission presented its seventeen-volume final report to the Governor-General and to a country culturally changed through bearing of witness to the stories of survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.

It is, in part, through listening closely to the stories of survivors of institutional child sexual abuse that the 409 recommendations of the Royal Commission were developed. Alongside staff from a wide range of disciplines, the act of listening closely to survivors was a task that often fell to lawyers as part of their work in the Office of the Solicitor Assisting the Royal Commission.

Lawyers at the Commission reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents produced by institutions for records of knowledge of allegations of abuse and what was done by institutions about them. With police officers and counsellors, lawyers interviewed survivors about their accounts of institutional sexual abuse and institutional responses to it.They listened carefully to survivors talk about their experiences while taking witness statements and in hearings.

Being a lawyer in a position to listen to those accounts can only be described as work that is, to quote the words of the Irish psychologist expert on the problem of abuse in the Catholic Church Doctor Marie Keenan, “immensely privileged.”

It is a brave thing to tell someone your story of abuse. The retelling of their personal accounts required individuals to revisit trauma; it was also painful telling the Royal Commission of times where, as children, survivors sought the help of adults who did not to act to protect them from further abuse. Before they spoke to the Royal Commission, some survivors had not told those closest to them their story.

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