Vital to get this inquiry right

The federal government had little choice but to set up a royal commission into child sex abuse, given the horrific evidence, the extent of what has happened over many years, the cries of victims and the reaction of an appalled community.

But responding to both the problem and the public outcry brings difficulties that will become even more apparent as the work gets underway.

Obviously the commission had to go wide. While the Catholic Church has been the focus of many of the allegations, it could not be singled out.

But once you went beyond it, where to stop? It could not just look at churches. State institutions, schools of all types, sporting bodies, even the boy scouts – the list is endless and the PM says they are all to be included.

Just how any one commission can get around all this material in any reasonable time is hard to imagine.

And then there is the PM's specification that it will focus not just on those directly or indirectly responsible but also those who had effectively turned a blind eye.

This will take a royal commission into very tricky areas, in terms of definition and the collection of evidence.

Respected Jesuit priest and legal expert Frank Brennan worries that the commission is "so broad it risks being counter-productive".

Clearly, the drawing up of the detailed terms of reference will be critical, as will the choice of commissioners to get the required spread of expertise, something Ms Gillard mentioned.

This will be a seminal inquiry for the nation, as important as that into the "stolen generations". It is vital, for the victims and for the community generally, that it be got right. It must be not just a thorough investigation, but one that leads to an improvement of institutions found to be at fault. It also needs to help the healing process for those whose lives have been deeply harmed by the wrongs done to them.

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