Resignation ahead of Royal Commission public hearings

Warning: This story discusses issues related to rape and sexual violence.

As the Royal Commission of Inquiry into State Abuse begins public hearings, its survivor advisory group is in disarray. Laura Walters talks to these survivors about the ongoing issues, and why they still think others should come forward to share their stories.

On Tuesday, a group of abuse survivors will stand outside the Rydges Hotel in Auckland in a show of solidarity with others coming to share their experiences with the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

They are all members of the seminal Survivor Advisory Group – a group that has been plagued with ongoing issues.

On Thursday, one member of the group resigned, off the back of a series of issues, poor management, and a lack of direction.

“Sadly, [the group’s] potential is unrealised, and I don’t see that changing due to the systemic issues with its formation and co-ordination,” he said in his letter of resignation.

The advisory group is the first of its kind in the world, and runs parallel to the commission. It is tasked with providing advice on how to keep survivors and victims at the centre of the inquiry, regarding interactions and processes, and how to remain focussed on survivor wellbeing.

The survivor advisory group member, who did not want to be named, said the group was not fulfilling its terms of reference.

“For me, it’s starting to look like it was really lip service.”

Like other members of the survivor group who spoke to Newsroom, the man said he had not received an apology or support from the commission in the wake of the news a convicted child sex offender had been present at gatherings with group members – many of whom were survivors of child sexual abuse.

“It just reminds me of the stonewalling that I’m dealing with in terms of dealing with the Catholic Church.”

A spokesperson for the commission said commissioner Paul Gibson had issued a public apology via the media, and there had been routine offers of counselling and wellbeing support.

However, all of the group members who spoke to Newsroom said this was not their experience.

This resignation is the latest in a string of issues facing the Royal Commission.

Since Newsroom broke the story about the convicted sex offender last month, there has also been a complaint to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner over non-consensual background checks, and now one member of the advisory group is considering lodging an application for a judicial review into the commission’s handling of this situation.

Prior to that, the group's manager was suspended and inquiry chair Sir Anand Satyanand announced he would be resigning, but not before he faced accusations of falling asleep at meetings.

Group members said they were frustrated the commissioners had refused to meet or engage directly with them, other than through a single email sent from executive director Mervin Singham, two weeks after events unfolded in the media.

Some members of the group, who had been retriggered and retraumatised by the events, had also made threatening comments to commissioners, leading to further alienation between some survivors and the commission.

“I was abused severely and horribly by the state as a little boy. Now, as a 58-year-old man I feel the state is abusing me again, and retriggering and retraumatising me. I feel like a bad little boy in state care again."

Over the past month, the commissioners have declined requests to meet, saying they could not engage until full background vetting of all survivor group members and support people were completed - a retrospective measure in response to the sex offender's presence at meetings.

At this stage it was looking unlikely the group would meet again in a formal capacity until next year, despite survivor and witness hearings going ahead as planned.

All who spoke to Newsroom said they wanted the inquiry to continue, in the hope of saving future generations of children in case from suffering from similar abuses.

However, members said they were feeling angry, isolated and frustrated by the way the commission had dealt with this latest problem.

Toni Jarvis has been advocating for himself and other survivors for more than four decades, and said he finally felt like he had gotten somewhere when the commission was announced.

But he believed the process, and those running the inquiry, lacked credibility, honesty and integrity, in the way it had treated members of the group.

“I hope we’re appreciated because we’re not there for ourselves, we’re there for survivors and they said they can’t do it without us.”

“I was abused severely and horribly by the state as a little boy. Now, as a 58-year-old man I feel the state is abusing me again, and retriggering and retraumatising me. I feel like a bad little boy in state care again,” he said.

“I feel like I don’t have any rights, I don’t deserve to have anything good in my life – that’s what they put me through and made me feel all my life – a piece of shit that was going to amount to nothing, like my life didn’t matter, what I went through didn’t matter...

“I was the littlest boy, and the littlest boys copped a lot in those institutions. I was the little boy right at the bottom of the pecking order, so I got raped and sodomised by all the bigger boys as well as staff.

“I went through a life of that. I’ve learned to live with it, I’ve learned to ovcercome that, I’ve learned to hold my head up with dignity and pride in myself.

“But the way they’ve treated me through all of this makes me feel like a worthless piece of shit, to be kicked around by the state again.”

The situation had created anxiety and stress for those involved, Jarvis said, adding that the proper lack of acknowledgment of the commission’s failure in its duty of care showed “arrogance” and a lack of understanding about survivor wellbeing.

Survivor group member Kath Coster also said the wellbeing of the survivor advisory group had not been considered in the aftermath of the latest blunder.

The lack of apology and communication did not send a good signal ahead of the beginning of survivor public hearings, she said.

“I can’t roll over and die when this means absolutely everything to me.”

Kararaina Beckett agreed the group had faced long-running communication and organisational issues.

Like others, she believed the commissioners should have met with the group in order to immediately debrief, and get some transparency.

“It was really hurtful and I can’t understand why they can’t apologise."

Regardless of the recent issues she did not plan to walk away from the group, or the commission.

“I want to be there for survivors,” she said.

“I hope we’re appreciated because we’re not there for ourselves, we’re there for survivors and they said they can’t do it without us.”

Inquiry must go on

Beckett was not alone in her desire for the inquiry to continue its work.

While all members of the group who spoke to Newsroom raised concerns with the commission’s processes, its response to its mistakes, and the treatment of the advisory group members, they agreed the inquiry’s work was important and possibly the only chance for justice and healing.

The series of issues plaguing the commission had seen people withdraw from sharing their experiences.

And some said they were worried about public hearings beginning without a group in place to advise the commission on how to keep victims and survivors at the centre.

“My greatest concern is that the thing falls over... It’s the best chance we’ve got."

But all believed integrity could be restored, and the inquiry could still achieve its ultimate objective.

The man who resigned from the advisory group last week said while he did not believe the group was achieving its aim, and could not in its current structure, the public should have confidence in the inquiry as a whole.

The closed hearings had already led to at least eight active referrals to police, and those who had shared their experiences with the commission said it was a positive experience.

“My greatest concern is that the thing falls over... It’s the best chance we’ve got,” he said.

Jarvis agreed the inquiry had to continue, but he believed integrity and honesty needed to be restored.

“I can’t roll over and die when this means absolutely everything to me.”

On Tuesday, about 10 members of the group will travel to Auckland off their own bat, to stand in solidarity with other survivors and victims of state abuse, and offer support to anyone who needs it.

Where to get help:

- Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (24/7), Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7), text free to 234 (8am-midnight) or live chat (7pm-11pm)

- Kidsline: 0800 54 37 54 (24/7; Kidsline Buddies available 4pm-9pm)- Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 TAUTOKO / 0508 828 865 (24/7)

- What's Up: 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 942 8787 (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends) or live chat (5pm-10pm)- Healthline: 0800 611 116 (24/7)

- Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)- Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 or text free to 4202 (24/7)- If you feel you or someone you know is at immediate risk, call 111.

- 1737 Need to talk? – a brand-neutral front door for anyone to access support from a trained counsellor. People can call and text 1737

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