BRISBANE -- Australia's "grubbiest little secret'' was dragged out of the shadows and into the spotlight this week. The clumsily titled Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began Wednesday in Melbourne, a full two decades after a high-profile case of child sex abuse exploded on to the national scene in 1994.
More than 30,000 Australians signed a petition to the Western Australian parliament demanding the inquiry into abuse at institutions run by the Christian Brothers, who accepted the truth of much of what was alleged and issued an apology.
But the Catholic Church, and many other institutions, spent years fighting back against a campaign largely waged by media exposures of the horrors of pedophilia and its effects on thousands of young lives.
This royal commission has extraordinary powers to summon witnesses, demand documents and jail anyone found lying under oath.
It looks set to dwarf even the Irish investigation known as the Ryan Commission, which released findings in 2009 suggesting police colluded with the Catholic church in covering up clerical child abuse in Dublin.
At least 5,000 people are expected to give evidence to the Australian inquiry compared with just 1,500 in the Ryan Commission. Already $22 million has been spent with not a word of evidence heard.
The probe is expected to run well beyond its 2015 deadline as more witnesses make contact to tell their stories.
Justice Peter McClellan, who heads the commission, has suggested the exercise is not so much about prosecution as compassion, giving many people a venue to tell the world the truth about their attackers.
"The commissioners accept that part of the task given to us by the terms of reference is to bear witness, on behalf of the nation, to the abuse and consequential trauma inflicted upon many people who have suffered sexual abuse as children,'' he said.
He also warned that the nature of the evidence would be so disturbing staff were exposing themselves to psychological risks.
"We have been told that many of the accounts we receive will contain serious and often shocking allegations,'' he said. "The advice we have received from psychiatrists is that, however robust the listener, persons exposed continuously to the account of these traumatic events are themselves at risk of harm."
One abuse victim, who described the abuse of children as "Australia's grubbiest little secret,'' said she wanted to see some accountability.
Leonie Sheedy, of the Care Leavers of Australia Network, spent 13 years of her childhood in orphanages.
"I don't care how old they are. I think if you're 99 and you're still alive you should face the full force of the courts of this country, you should be sentenced to appropriate sentences," she said. "I want to see the churches and charities and every state government held accountable for the criminal acts that were committed against us.''
Chrissie Foster, whose daughter died of a medication overdose after being abused by a priest, seemed stunned the inquiry was under way.
"It's an amazing thing to sit in there with those powerful people and hear what they're going to do for future children and right the wrongs of the past," she said after the commission's first hearing. "I'm just so overwhelmed and happy that this is happening in our country."
Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.
See also Devastation of rape at wfp.to/comment