Still Fighting for Justice

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As Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse continues, Leneen Forde reflects on the ground-breaking Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions which she chaired in the late 90s. Now in her 80s, Leneen continues to support the disadvantaged and to fight against injustice.

It is 17 years since Leneen Forde handed down the report of the Inquiry which has become known simply as ‘the Forde Inquiry’ – the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions.

Leneen regards her work with the commission as the most important thing she has done in a lifetime which has also included her early career as a solicitor, appointment as Queensland’s first woman Governor, 15 years as Chancellor of Griffith University, and a wide range of community and professional contributions – not to mention bringing up her five children as a single mother following the death of her first husband, Gerry Forde, in 1966.

The scale and scope of the Forde Inquiry was unprecedented: it covered the whole period from 1911 to 1999; it examined 159 Queensland orphanages and detention centres; over 300 people provided information; and the report made 42 recommendations.

Speaking about the inquiry on the ABC’s ‘Four Corners’ program in 2003, Leneen admitted to being shocked by what the inquiry had unearthed.

That shock remains with her today. “There are stories in my head that will never, ever go away. Really awful stories,” she says. “We had court reporters who were crying and lasting only a couple of days at a time – they may have been able to listen to a murder trial for weeks on end, but that’s just one story; here, they were hearing at least four terrible tales each day. It was psychologically hard to remain composed, but we had to, for the sake of the victims.”

Looking back, Leneen is satisfied most of the Commission’s recommendations were followed through and the lasting benefit for those who came forward was that someone in a position of authority was listening to their stories – they were being believed; they were being taken seriously.

Queensland led the way in establishing the inquiry and while she was pleased the federal government announced the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, she has always been concerned about the impact on victims of having to tell and retell their harrowing tales. “To get compensation following the Queensland inquiry, they had to repeat their accounts and that was hard for them – it perpetuates the hurt.”

By contrast, Leneen’s time as Governor of Queensland in the early 90s was far happier – although some eyebrows were raised when she was appointed. “I was a woman; I wasn’t born here; I had a Canadian accent; and I hadn’t changed my name to McDonald, my second husband’s name,” she says. “Angus and I used to laugh because I would always begin my speeches with the classic ‘my husband and I’ so that the audience would know that we were married.”

Leneen’s focus while Governor was on opening up the State’s historic Government House to the people of Queensland and on making the role of Governor less formal.

“Angus and I hadn’t come from privileged backgrounds - I was a solicitor; he was a policeman. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do with six footmen when we had only four feet between us, and we certainly didn’t want people curtsying to us. We tried to make it a happy place not only for us but for staff and visitors.”

“I made a point of taking a fresh approach to the vice-regal role. I had the Queensland Art Gallery provide all Australian paintings for the first time; we had the first ever Indigenous reception; we staged a Christmas pageant for the public; we hosted a reception for the Asian community to express solidarity with them at a time when anti-Asian sentiment was particularly virulent; we even had Irish dinners to celebrate St Patrick’s day with rosy Pontiac potatoes cleverly included in the floral arrangements. We also had the annual McDonald Games (our own version of the highland games) with a tug-o-war, a caber toss, whisky, haggis and the classic egg-and-spoon and sack races. I also introduced model Investiture Ceremonies for groups of school children with a girl always playing the role of Governor – I wanted them to know that they, too, could one day be Governor.”

This desire to expand the horizons of young Queensland girls was borne of her own experience. “As a girl, I always did what my father said and as a young wife, I accepted Gerry’s authority without question. My deference to authority continued even after Gerry’s death when Father Alf Hogan, the local priest, told me in no uncertain terms that I should get myself enrolled at The University of Queensland and get a career if I was going to support my five children. So I did!”

Enrolling for a law degree as a mature student turned out to be life-changing – she became strongly independent and an unabashed feminist, participating in street marches and advocating for the status of women as a member of Zonta International, a service organisation with members in 67 countries worldwide. She later become the first Australian ever elected as international president of the organisation.

“I have always fought for causes,” she says. “As I get older, it takes longer to do things and I can’t do as much as I used to, but there are still some things that leave me with a burning desire to act. At the moment, I’m working with a group of friends to lobby the Catholic Church to build a women’s shelter here in Brisbane.”

In June 2000, Leneen began her 15-year term as Chancellor of Griffith University. Only the fourth Chancellor in the institution’s history, she was the first woman to serve in the role.

Her time at Griffith saw the University’s reputation soar and its student population expand from 18,000 to 46,000. She has been particularly pleased to see the opening of a campus in Logan, one of the most ethnically diverse centres in the state and an area which traditionally suffers disadvantage. “They’ve named the football field on the Logan campus after me – that’s the best tribute I could wish for,” she says.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2016 edition of 50 something magazine.

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