From police to politics, sexual abuse in public institutions is still shrouded in secrecy

Sexual harassment and assault are an issue in all walks of life, but addressing the problem is particularly difficult when the perpetrator holds public office. Today campaigner Carrie Buckmaster launches a parliamentary petition calling for more transparency on the issue.

The ongoing Labour Party scandal around handling of sexual harassment allegations is nothing new, and it’s not just political parties that need to take a closer look at how they handle complaints of sexual harm. Sadly, our public institutions have a history of mishandling sexual misconduct allegations too. Labour’s current problems were preceded by the Human Rights Commission’s failure to respond well to a young intern’s complaint of being groped by the Chief Financial Officer. Going back further we have the allegations of police sexual assaults and subsequent coverups which led to the 2004-2007 Bazley Commission of Inquiry into Police Conduct. The list goes on and on.

People are at greater risk of sexual harm anywhere there is a power imbalance, for example in schools, prisons, and care facilities. People with disabilities, young people, and children are all at risk of sexual harm from those who are supposed to help. The public service is particularly susceptible to the misuse of access to, and power over, people for sexual gain.

The Bazley Inquiry was an institutional response to allegations of the misuse of power and access to vulnerable people for sexual gain. The Inquiry found evidence of police exploiting people when they were vulnerable, and incidents of officers attempting to protect alleged perpetrators. Bazley recommended that the police oversight body increase its transparency, and accessibility to the public, in order to promote a greater level of independence.

Yet, 12 years after the inquiry, are we serving complainants’ needs any better? We still do not know how many allegations of police sexual assault are received a year. Nor how (or if) those allegations are investigated. Nor what the outcomes of those investigations are. So we cannot possibly know how well complainants’ needs are met.

Unlike overseas police oversight bodies, our Independent Police Conduct Authority does not annually report statistics on police sexual assault allegations. It is unclear what statistics they do collect and how well they are monitoring trends in police sexual misconduct allegations. The Authority is not subject to the Official Information Act and it does not have to answer questions from the public.

Most of our public organisations are similarly opaque in their lack of reporting, but not all. Oranga Tamariki deserves recognition for transparently and regularly reporting statistics of allegations of sexual harm to children and youth in their care. Yet they too could go one step further, and report statistics on complainants’ levels of satisfaction with how their allegations were handled.

An evidence-based approach to reducing sexual harm from the public service requires transparency, honesty and the collection and collation of information from across the public sector. A victim-centred approach to responding to allegations means ensuring it is as easy as possible for people to raise complaints of harm in a way that is safe for them, and ensuring they receive the support they need, when they need it. Further, they may also request that they are informed of improvements that have been made, based on their experience, to help others.

Public servants may experience pressure to minimise, deny or hide any information that may damage their institution’s reputation, and can mistakenly prioritise preserving organisational reputation over being honest. Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse identified placing an organisation’s reputation above the safety and wellbeing of children as a common risk factor in poor responses to allegations of sexual harm. The Commission recommended independent oversight of institutional complaint handling.

Telling the truth is not always easy, but it is the right thing to do.

Carrie Buckmaster. Credit: Hagen Hopkins.

When allegations of sexual harm to members of the public are swept under the carpet, this secrecy impedes the reflection needed to learn from mistakes. This inability to learn from mistakes means that organisations’ prevention activities are not improved, and more people are harmed. Not learning from mistakes also means that responses to allegations of harm can remain inconsistent and inadequate, causing additional and preventable trauma to those who come forward.

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There is danger in blindly trusting our institutions to do the right thing. We must ask for proof that they are. Currently we do not have enough open, honest and transparent information about how well the public service is handling allegations of harm for informed trust to be granted.

The onus to improve the safety of our public services should not fall solely on the survivors of sexual harm; we all have a role in holding our public institutions to account. If we know the number of allegations of harm across the public sector, and complainants’ level of satisfaction with how their allegations were handled, then we can better uphold our duty to protect people when they are at their most vulnerable.

A ‘she’ll be right’ approach is not going to make our public services safer from sexual harm. Motivating our MPs to hold our public institutions to account will.

Sign this petition and help bring about a public service that is safer from sexual harm; a public service that fronts up and is accountable for how well it responds to allegations of harm. From time to time things will go wrong. It is impossible to prevent all sexual misconduct. When harm does happen we need to know complainants are listened to, respected, supported, and their words acted upon. We need to know that any systemic weaknesses in organisations’ prevention and response activities are identified and dealt with. We can’t expect perfection, but we can expect integrity.


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