THE man heading up the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse has warned its three-year deadline is unrealistic.
Justice Peter McClellan spoke about the significance of the royal commission and the magnitude of the task confronting it during a wide-ranging opening address in Melbourne on Wednesday.
"The community has come to acknowledge that fundamental wrongs have been committed in the past which have caused great trauma and lasting damage to many people," Justice McClellan said.
"Although a painful process, if a community is to move forward it must come to understand where wrongs have occurred and, so far as possible, right those wrongs."
Justice McClellan said the historic royal commission would almost certainly stretch beyond the proposed 2015 final reporting deadline.
He said it was probable more than 5000 people would want to share their stories with the royal commission, although there were suggestions this number might be conservative.
The royal commission had received more than 1200 phone calls since November, he said.
Similar inquiries in Australia and overseas had taken up to a decade in some instances, he said.
"I propose to use the time between now and the delivery of the interim report (due by mid 2014) to complete as much of our task as we can and, when that report is delivered, government will be able to make a judgement as to the future course which the commission should take," Justice McClellan said.
He said the royal commission, which will employ 110 people, would be expensive. He revealed $22 million had been spent already on set-up costs.
The six commissioners will also travel across the country to speak with victims, some in private sessions.
Justice McClellan also revealed steps had been taken to start on the "enormous task" of obtaining evidence from the Catholic Church.
"As a result of our initial inquiries … the commission has already service notices on particular bodies within the Catholic Church in Australia and its insurer, the Salvation Army and the NSW Department of Public Prosecutions seeking the production of relevant documents. More notices are being prepared," he said.
But he did praise the church, which established the Truth, Healing and Justice Council to liaise with the commission.
While the royal commission will not start taking evidence until October, Justice McClellan said victims could begin registering their interest to tell their stories by phoning a hotline manned by trained staff.
But he asked for patience, assuring victims they would get an opportunity to share their tragic stories at either public or private hearings.
"The initial response received may be so great that it may not be immediately possible to interview some people or have arrangements made for their account to be heard immediately in private session or a hearing," he said.
Justice McClellan said the accounts the commission will hear would contain "serious and often shocking allegations".
For this reason it will not be possible for the commission to continuously hear victims' statements.
"However robust the listener, persons exposed continuously to the account of these traumatic events are themselves at risk of harm," he said."We understand that there are limits upon how many personal accounts a commissioner, and the commission's staff, can safely listen to in any one day."
The definition of an "institution" under the commission's terms of reference is broad and will include organised churches, schools, child care centres, recreational bodies and state-run institutions providing residential care for children.
Included among these could be the Scouts, Girl Guides, swimming clubs and detention centres housing refugees.
Counsel assisting the commission Gail Furness also provided an opening statement, explaining in detail how the royal commission would go about gathering evidence.
Earlier, the Federal Government announced the establishment of a free national legal advisory service for people engaging or wishing to engage with the royal commission.
Contact details for the new service will be advertised nationally in coming weeks.
Assistance will include advice on the implications of existing confidentiality agreements.
How to contact the commission
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