The Need for Citizen Ombudsmen (Or: Bugger Off! I Don’t Work for You.)

The Royal Commission will make a lot of findings on how organisations can improve their processes in tackling abusers within their ranks. The problem may well be that there will be an emphasis on people who are professionals or otherwise have no link to victims’ concerns.

The general approach from government to deal with problems has been to set up an “Ombudsman”. This is fine in principle, if the right person is appointed. Too often, however, this has not been the case. Eventually, the Ombudsman becomes merely an extension of the government which appointed him or her.

Sometimes, the appointment becomes simply a cushy job for some politically-connected hack. At other times, the position itself is not given any teeth. The Ombudsman makes a lot of good-sounding noises, but little change occurs. This may appear to be a bit of a cynical view, but a quick review of the many instances where an Ombudsman has been installed tends to reinforce this view.

Government will always tend to support a professional in such positions, because they can be counted upon to be “responsible”, or, to put it another way, not to be too critical of their employer, the government.

The current responses to institutional child sexual abuse, such as the discredited “Melbourne Response” set up by Cardinal George Pell (who is on a 3-month holiday in Rome), usually tout “independent” people. As has been demonstrated by Peter O’Callaghan, Pell’s “independent” consultant, who is paid by the church, this quickly becomes a farce. The general public can easily be led to believe that something real has been done.

The only sure way around these problems is to appoint people who are truly independent. This is likely to be a victim or victims’ advocate, not some bureaucrat looking at the position as some sort of stepping-stone to something better. Funding should also be free of government whim. One way to do this is to have the position funded through compulsory contributions from the offending organisations, with oversight by a community committee elected by victims and their supporters.

An Ombudsman coming from the affected community, rather than the government or churches, would have the right to investigate any organisation at will. Unannounced inspections are vital. All too many times, in the old Children’s’ Homes, official visitors would find that, miraculously, shoes, toys, etc. would appear during their visit, to be locked away again as soon as they left.

Of course, it is an extremely courageous government (in the “Yes Minister” context) which would set up a system of “Citizens’ Ombudsmen” that it did not control. However, this is precisely what needs to happen if there is to be credibility for any oversight mechanism coming out of the Royal Commission.

TOMORROW: St Catherine’s Children’s Home

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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