Find out what it’s like to be a witness at the Royal Commission

Jennifer Ingham went through the ‘Catholic Church Towards Healing’ process. She was awarded a record lump sum payment at her facilitation meeting in Brisbane in May 2013. Peter Kelso acted for Jennifer at the facilitation. Peter encouraged her to speak to the Royal Commission. Jennifer was asked to be a public witness in the Case Study 4 hearing in December 2013. Peter also represented Jennifer at the hearing.

We asked Jennifer if she would consider sharing her experience as a Royal Commission public witness to give some personal insights into the process. If you are unsure about what to expect if you decide to give evidence, Jennifer’s story will help to ease some of your uncertainties.

 

My experience at the Royal Commissions Public Hearing was difficult and confronting. I felt I had been exposed to my core. I was able to put my fear to one side. Why? I knew this was my chance to tell the truth to everyone who needed to hear it. I am so glad I did.

The experience was so empowering. I still remember the most amazing woman who gave her evidence just before me. Her grace and bravery was heroic. I drew my courage from the way she told her story. I could see her standing tall and she showed me that if she could do it, then I could do it. I now feel so proud of myself for assisting the Royal Commission by going into the witness box. Hopefully I can encourage you to be brave and speak out. That’s why I’ve decided to tell you my story.

Finding a solicitor… and a friend

During the ‘Towards Healing’ process I met a very kind and good man in my solicitor in Peter Kelso. I realised I was in the hands of a solicitor who absolutely understood my intentions. I knew I could leave Peter to take care of the legal matters so that I could concentrate on myself and my family. He propped me up when I needed it.

Peter’s empathy is unquestionable. He understands how hard it is to speak about your abuse. Peter was informative, firm, accessible and above all, compassionate. Yes, Peter looked after the legal side of things, but I was so grateful that he looked after my spirituality as well. The latter was invaluable. Peter fought so hard on my behalf at the facilitation meeting to achieve a successful outcome.

When Peter encouraged me to write a submission to the Royal Commission to help others understand the process for a witness, I was grateful for the chance to help. Peter and his team are strong advocates for victims like you and me. Kelso’s are passionate about the need to expose those criminals within institutions who violate and abuse children. They are even more passionate about assisting victims like me to seek redress.

Peter and his law firm want to make an impact, to make sure that the recommendations of the Royal Commission will lead to law reform. To make sure that victims receive a compensation they deserve. To make sure this era of depravity being exposed does not ever return. I now know that it is vital for victims like me to tell our story to make sure this never happens again.

How will people react to you if you give evidence?

I feel different now, in a good way. For the first time since I was 15 years old, I no longer have to look over my shoulder. I no longer have a secret. I no longer feel frightened to tell the truth. My friends are here to support me. Even journalists at the Royal Commission commended me for my dignity, acknowledging the strength it must have taken to stand tall and speak the truth.

I cannot begin to explain the intense love and support I have received from my siblings over the last 12 months. The Royal Commission hearing has reunited us. Exposing yourself so deeply can hurt those who love you. My husband and my child showed such unconditional love. Two very special friends never left my side. I knew they cared for me deeply. I knew they believed the truth of the depravities and cover-ups within the Church. They knew my story had to be told.

I wasn’t prepared for the impact that the hearing had on my friends. Most of my friends had only limited knowledge of what happened to me. But after giving evidence at the Royal Commission, word travelled fast. The support I received was positively overwhelming. Even strangers sent me messages to say “you are doing the right thing…be proud”.

Sadly and surprisingly three good friends have abandoned me after hearing my story. I feel that they just don’t know what to say. I am hopeful that time will heal the rift that has been caused. It is important for victims to understand the impact this decision will have on your life.

Don’t be scared by the Commission

The staff at the Royal Commission were incredible. All communications and consultations were respectful. I was supported and informed about every detail throughout every process. The team were accessible at all times leading up to the hearing dates – just a phone call or an email away.

As well as appearing as a witness I also had two private sessions with Commissioners before the public hearing. The Commissioners and Peter’s team put in so much effort to make sure I did not feel daunted before these meetings. The level of care I received was heart-warming. I could not have dreamt of anything better.

I was at the hearing for three days. I was scared, but only because I wanted to make sure my intentions to share my experience would come across correctly. I was wrapped in a blanket of support. The staff from the Royal Commission allocated me a private room and any comforts I needed during my time at the hearing.

What about your expenses?

The Royal Commission took care of my expenses including my flights and accommodation. All of my arrangements were taken care of so that my attendance at the hearing cost me nothing.

What to expect when you’re on the stand

The most distressing experience of the hearing was being cross examined by the barrister acting for one of the Priests named in my statement. He challenged an aspect of my statement. This was horrifying. I knew he had a job to do but he could have been gentler in his approach. I became teary on many occasions in the witness box.

I was represented by my barrister Mr Richard Royle. Richard was extraordinary and I felt protected by him. He made sure my cross examination experience did not negatively influence my role at the hearing. I would recommend that anyone asked to be a witness at the public hearing be represented by a solicitor and a barrister. The Commonwealth Government pay for this and it is well worth it.

I found the other lawyers at the hearing very respectful. The Catholic Bishop in my hearing reassured me privately that he did not support the treatment I had experienced in cross examination by the Priest’s barrister. The Bishop commended me face to face for my courage. This meant a lot to me.

In general, there is an aura at the hearing. You get a feeling that the purpose of the Royal Commission enjoys wide public support. As a public witness you feel that you are supporting an organisation which is doing the right thing.

What happens afterwards? How do you move on?

I have now left the intensity of last December behind me. I found the weeks after the public hearing draining. I kept to myself. I simply did not want to see anyone. I realised I just needed to ride out the sadness, the exhaustion, the anger, the relief and the “I’m so glad I did it” emotions.

Throughout the hearing, and afterwards, I leaned on the tools I had learnt from my psychologist. This helped me understand what I was feeling and why I was feeling it. I knew I needed to ride it out. It was not easy. But that doesn’t matter now. I did it.

How do I feel now?

I am very proud and satisfied that I went to the public hearing for the Royal Commission. I am extremely appreciative of the support I received from my family, my legal team and the staff at the Royal Commission.

If you are thinking about giving evidence as a witness at the Royal Commission, I can tell you it won’t be easy. But I know for sure that if I could do it, you can do it too.

Best regards,
Jennifer

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About Peter Kelso


I am a solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. I have been admitted to practice since 1984. I am the principal and founder of Kelso Lawyers which has operated in Newcastle since 1986.

I have been an advocate for compensation for victims of abuse since the commencement of the Victims Compensation Tribunal in New South Wales in 1988. I conduct the largest victims practice in New South Wales. I have a high level of engagement with numerous NGOs such as woman’s refuges, sexual assault services, community organisations and healing centres.

On 31 October 2012 I was a finalist for the Justice Medal, presented by the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales.


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