This week the Prime Minister confirmed victims of child sexual abuse will receive a national apology. The Attorney–General said priests should be forced to report individuals that have confessed to child abuse crimes. The Social Services Minister called for criminal laws in regards to reporting child sexual abuse to be nationalised. And the Church responded by suggesting that there is no evidence that this would result in a safer environment for children; once again reaffirming the inability of religious institutions to accept their institutional failures and acknowledge the recommendations of the Royal Commission.
We cannot allow churches to continue protecting individuals at the expense of our children’s safety and wellbeing. It is horrific to place the value of confessional privacy above the wellbeing of our children. I respect that people want to confess and be offered guidance, but they must also be forced to recognise the horror and impact of their actions – not just have their slate wiped clean. Churches are continuing to place their judgements above that of the law.
Last week I spoke in Parliament in regards to a letter from the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. The letter was a response to an individual who was asking what measures were in place to safeguard children within the Diocese, with reference to the Diocese protection of Bishop Peter Hollingworth. Despite ample evidence from the Royal Commission that Bishop Hollingworth allowed confirmed paedophile John Elliot to continue in his role as rector of Dalby, he has not been removed from his position within the church. This is a man who was forced to stand down as Governor-General, patron of Barnardos, patron of Kids First Foundation and patron-in-chief of the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect in 2001, but Archbishop Freier has subsequently cleared him for Ministry four times. (2007, 2010, 2013, 2016).
Under the Dioceses of Melbourne rules, clergy require a Working With Children Check (WWCC) to be cleared for Ministry. This WWCC scheme has been in place in Victoria since 2006. Concealing child abuse should result in a negative assessment from the WWCC and therefore would not have allowed Peter Hollingworth to be cleared for Ministry. I have concerns about a lack of disclosure on the way to his WWCC or that he does not hold one. If he does not hold a WWCC, then he must be immediately suspended by the church and this could also result in a criminal offence and a possible sentence of up to two years in prison under s31(1) of the Working With Children Act 2005 (Vic). If he does have a WWCC, then I would be very concerned that there has been a failure to disclose the details regarding his concealment of child abuse. Failure to disclose material information in an application for a WWCC is a criminal offence with 2 years in prison under s39(1) of the Working With Children Act 2005 (Vic). Not only am I concerned that the church may be continuing to protect a man who concealed child abuse and failed the victims, but I am apprehensive that they may be committing criminal offences to achieve this.
This fear was also highlighted by the response received from the Diocese of Melbourne. The content of their letter suggested any issues should be raised via the church first rather than the police, which is reaffirmed by their website: ‘The first step in making a complaint is to call the recorded information line at any time’.
This is just wrong. The church must encourage individuals to approach the police in the first instance. The church should be there to offer support and guidance, not an alternative justice system. Surely they can see by the 64,000 living victims of child abuse that they need to change their approach? Yet there appears to be a complete refusal to accept the need to change.
In Parliament last week I called for religious institutions to fall under the same category of mandatory reporting as the police, nurses, and teachers. Although there is already a legal obligation for people to come forward, it is clear that some institutions need to embrace this responsibility more fully. If police and medical professionals are under this obligation to report, I see no reason for the church to resist being included. They need to hold their hands up to their previous failings and start taking a proactive approach to preventing further institutional child abuse. It is more than disappointing that institutions that pride themselves as moral bastions are having to be forced to accept their failings.