COMMENT:

The Government has set up what might be called "the mother of all inquiries" with the scope it has given to a royal commission into historical abuse. Initially it was to be an inquiry into the state's care of children in institutions of the past but now, at the request of churches, it will extend to religious abuse too. Even without that dimension, it has grown into a wide-ranging exercise since the commissioners were appointed in February.

Criminologist Elizabeth Stanley, whose book on violence in post-war childcare helped bring about the royal commission, wrote in the Herald yesterday that its remit will extend to, "foster care, adoption placements, children's homes, state residences, borstals, psychiatric hospitals, disability facilities, health camps, early childhood facilities, state schools, special residential schools, teen parent units, police cells, court cells and even places of transport between care settings ..."

The royal commission led by former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand is expected to take four years and has been given a budget of nearly $80 million, of which $15 million is to provide participants with counselling and support. Announcing this on Monday, Jacinda Ardern said the exercise would "confront a dark chapter in our history by acknowledging what happened to people in state care" and provide lessons for the future.

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But it is hard to know what more can be learned from last century's institutional practices that were discredited long ago, often as a result of more focused inquiries than this one.

Satyanand said this will be the biggest royal commission ever undertaken in New Zealand and who would doubt it if it is going to look into everything from foster homes to state schools from 1950 to 1999.

The Government was clearly reluctant to include religious institutions at the request of the Anglican Church and others. Ardern said she believed the Government's first duty was to those who were abused in state care and she offered victims an assurance its investigation of their treatment would not be diluted.

The commission has been asked for a report on state care before it produces one on church-run homes and schools. But Stanley worries that public attention on state care will be overshadowed by "fascination with paedophile vicars, the denials of the Vatican or the tensions between prolific abuse and religious morality".

The wish of the churches to be included shows how much the Catholic Church, in particular, has changed its attitude to these offences. Dunedin Bishop Michael Dooley said this week he might not even wait for the royal commission before making public the record of complaints against clergy in his diocese over the years.

The church has been slow to change the idea that secrecy and discretion was in the best interests of all concerned.

Victims no longer want secrecy and discretion, they want their suffering publicly acknowledged, even those who have received compensation from the state. They want to be heard and they assuredly will be.