Child sex abuse royal commission: Lawyers reveal trauma of representing survivors

For Melbourne institutional abuse lawyer Angela Sdrinis, the “flashbacks” started when she was bathing her young children and putting them to bed.

“Those times when a lot of clients had been abused — I had been doing those same things with my own kids and getting secondary trauma,” she said.

“I started suffering flashbacks of things that had happened to my clients when I was with my own kids.

“I actually stopped doing the work for a few years because I really couldn’t cope with the stories during that time.”
In recent weeks the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard shocking figures about the extent of abuse in churches and religious orders.

But it’s a horror that survivors — and their lawyers — have had to endure for decades.

Dr Vivian Waller has worked exclusively as an institutional abuse lawyer for more than 20 years, and is conscious of the impact of the legal process on abuse survivors and those who support them.

The casual ground floor meeting rooms at her Collingwood practice in Melbourne’s inner north feel a long way from a stuffy, formal CBD law office.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that if a client wants to come and talk to us, they may be re-traumatised by the fact that we look like we’re someone in a position of authority, and it may retrigger their feelings of powerlessness,” said Dr Waller.

“We’re mindful of how we set up the office. I always tell clients they’re free to leave whenever they want — they don’t have to ask permission.

“I don’t want them to feel like they’re sitting in a principal’s office or in front of a priest.”
Dr Waller, who has worked on over 400 cases against the Christian Brothers alone, credits the royal commission for giving survivors a voice.

“It’s fairly common where someone in a position of power abuses a child, that they put a burden of silence and shame on that child, which that child carries for the rest of their life,” she said.

“It is a very powerful thing to speak out and to put that shame back where it belongs. It’s the Catholic Church that should feel ashamed.”

Shifting legal landscape

When Angela Sdrinis first began acting for survivors about 20 years ago, the landscape was dramatically different.

“For many years, it felt as if we were beating our heads against a brick wall,” she said.

“There’s now a huge body of publicly available evidence which you simply couldn’t access in the past.”

Ms Sdrinis said the royal commission had emboldened a whole new generation of abuse survivors to come forward.

“I’m acting for a number of clients who have been victims of abuse in institutional settings very recently. I didn’t see that 10 years ago,” she said.

“The royal commission has given people permission to speak. It’s told survivors — ‘you will be believed’ — so they’re coming forward earlier.”