What A National Apology Means For Child Sexual Abuse Survivors

Roy Janetzki kept the sexual abuse he suffered as a child a secret until the royal commission -- even from his wife of now 43 years.

When the couple married in 1975, neither of them knew the other had been abused while in the care of several institutions.

Roy told ten daily there were “little things” over the years.

“My wife always asked me to peel the potatoes and I used to wonder why,” he said.

“Then I finally found out. In the orphanage, that was Rhonda’s job in the kitchen: to peel the rotten potatoes. Now she can’t stand the smell of them.”

Roy and Rhonda Janetzki have been married for 43 years. Image: Supplied
‘I was in constant fear’

Rhonda was ten years old when she arrived at the notorious St John’s Orphanage at Thurgoona near Albury, run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy institution. She was abused by a man on allocated visits to a family every third Sunday of the month. 

“I was in constant fear …  I thought I must have done something to make this happen and used to get really angry with myself because I couldn’t make it stop."

Rhonda left the orphanage three years later. Like many, she kept her “nightmares” to herself, terrified of the repercussions of speaking out and never for once thinking others would be suffering the same abuse.

After sharing her story for the first time in 2008, she said the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which heard from thousands of victims and survivors, was the first time she had ever felt believed.

Now, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison prepares to deliver his national apology to them, they hope this trust isn’t lost.

“I don’t want everything that the commission has done to be put on a shelf and forgotten,” she said.

The Janetzkis hope the trust gained through the royal commission is not lost. Image: Supplied

On Monday, Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will acknowledge and apologise for the sexual abuse suffered by an estimated 60,000 children over decades, in orphanages, children’s homes, schools, churches and sports clubs, among other Australian institutions.

It was one of the key recommendations handed down by the royal commission.

Leaders have made similar public gestures before, with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologising to victims of forced adoptions in 2013.

In 2008,  then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd addressed the “blemished chapter” of the country’s history that created The Stolen Generations.

READ MORE: National Child Sex Abuse Apology Announced

So, what does an apology of this nature actually mean?

“What happened to us was criminal. To acknowledge that is going to be overwhelming,” said Rhonda, as she and her husband prepare for their trip to Canberra.

Leonie Sheedy, from the Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN), supports those who suffered abuse in orphanages or foster homes. She told ten daily the day draws mixed emotions.

“It will be a momentous occasion to see our leaders step on a stage and put this blackest of histories out to not only Australians but to the world, reminding them that the damage from child sexual abuse crimes lasts forever,” she told ten daily.

Care Leavers Australasia Network's Leonie Sheedy. Image: AAP

“But it’s also a day that reminds us of what we’ve lost; and that’s our families. The state governments and the churches and charities have played a huge part in that.”

It’s a long time coming for Sheedy who co-founded CLAN 18 years ago, after growing up in an orphanage for about 13 years.

Ten years of tireless lobbying helped to bring on the royal commission that she says brought “real justice” to care leavers’ stories.

But she cautioned the apology excludes those victims who suffered physical and emotional abuse but were not sexually used.

READ MORE: Scouts Australia Apologies For Child Sexual Abuse

Members of the Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) hold up a banner thanking the Commission as they await the final report. Image: AAP

Dr Cathy Fezelman, who heads the Blue Knot Foundation for people who have experienced childhood trauma, agrees.

“This is an acknowledgement for a group of victims and it’s an important one. But many people who have been abused, not in institutions and not sexually so, will feel as if they don’t matter,” she told ten daily.

It’s estimated five million Australian adults have experienced childhood trauma in one form or another.

Fezelman said some were awaiting personal apologies from the state-run institutions in which they were harmed  -- another recommendation handed down by the royal commission.

This was the case for Robbie Gambley, who received a “meaningful” letter  from the New South Wales Department of Education more than 40 years after he was sexually abused by his science teacher.

‘I have lived with guilt, shame and stigma my whole life’

Gambley was a 15-year-old student at a school in Bonalbo, west of Byron Bay, when he was coerced and attacked by a male teacher in the 1970s.

“I was worried about my trial exams at the time. Tragically I confided in him, and he knew that I would trust him. He took me to Melbourne in the school holidays and that’s how it started,” Gambley told ten daily.

“The abuse went on for three years.”

Robbie Gambley will be attending the apology. Image: Supplied

A young Gambley was filled with such shame that he too kept his abuse to himself for 24 years, as he turned to drugs and alcohol to “block the memories”.

He built up trust and confided in a social worker in the late 1990s, to whom he says he owes his life.

“I went from thinking I had done this terrible, dirty thing to realising that he was a sexual predator and that I needed to protect other children,” he said.

Gambley took his abuser to court, ending with conviction against the teacher in 2007.

But it took another ten years for him to receive an apology from the NSW Education Department that had failed to recognise the court findings.

Addressing the ‘elephant in the room’

CLAN's Sheedy said a sincere apology must address the “elephant in the room” -- the rollout of the National Redress Scheme.

Up to 60,000 survivors are expected to seek redress from their offenders through compensation, counselling or a personal apology following the launch of the almost $4 billion scheme on July 1.

But three months in, about 1,500 applications have been received and only a “handful” of payments made, according to the ABC.

The ABC report claims while the scheme, a key recommendation of the royal commission, received support from all states and territories, only one-third of named institutions have signed up and four states are yet to participate.

Sheedy and Fezelman agreed some “concerning” changes have been made to the assessment matrix used to calculate payments under the scheme.

“It is very obvious that the churches, charities and state governments have had a very strong hand in formulating the application,” Sheedy said.

“For a start, the didn’t take up the recommendation of a $200,000 payout; that has been reduced to $150,000.”

Compensation starts at $70,00 for abuse involving penetration, increasing to a $150,000 cap for several serious factors. Instances of ‘contact’ or ‘exposure’ abuse are capped accordingly.

“This has perpetuated the myth that penetrative abuse is necessarily more severe than contact abuse or even exposure, which isn’t informed by an understanding of the different ways sexual abuse can impact a child,” Fezelman said.

Roy Janetzki attends the launch of the National Redress Scheme in July. Image; AAP

Sheedy is also critical of a 1.9 percent annual inflation rate on payments, and of a scheme that excludes people who are in prison.

Fezelman acknowledged while there is tension between a manageable scheme and one that does justice to survivors, it isn’t a “transaction”.

"This is asking people to revisit the core of what often sent their life off the rails. It can’t be done too sensitively," she said. 

She noted every step of the process that went wrong, including changes to criminal justice laws and the setup of a National Office of Child Safety, need to be addressed.

‘I did all of this to protect children’

Gambley has always called the apology a “healing ceremony”.

“It’s more appropriate,” he adds, hoping Monday’s event will help “banish” the stigma around sexual abuse.

“I have lived with guilt, shame and the stigma my whole life,” he said.

“I just hope after this ceremony that Australians embrace us and that people can move on with their lives.”

But at the end of the day, he said it comes back to the children.

“I went to the police; I did all of that to protect other kids. I hope that they (governments) understand that.”

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Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au.