Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (17:02:10) — I am very pleased to rise to speak to the Legal Identity of Defendants (Organisational Child Abuse) Bill 2018. Mr Rich‑Phillips went through the bill in detail, but in a nutshell it abolishes the Ellis defence that was founded in 2007 in the New South Wales Court of Appeal. As Mr Rich‑Phillips and Ms Springle have mentioned, it was brought by abuse survivor John Ellis against the Catholic Church. That court found that church assets could not be targeted by Ellis in pursuit of compensation for the crimes he had endured within the church, because the church trustees could not be held accountable for the crimes of the individuals.
The fact that a church would be trying to avoid paying compensation and the fact that a church would not be seeking forgiveness in one way or another is appalling, and it is appalling that this has gone on for decades and probably centuries. But certainly for decades we have been exposing this. This bill finally gives effect to the recommendations of the royal commission and the Betrayal of Trust inquiry, for which I would commend this Parliament. I certainly know Ms Crozier was very involved with that Betrayal of Trust inquiry, and I can only imagine how emotional that would be to have been on that inquiry and to have heard that absolute betrayal of trust.
We hear so often in today’s society about betrayal of trust, whether it is in our cricket team or whether it is in fact in this Parliament that the community has lost trust, but I lost trust in the church many years ago. What saddens me about this is that the church should have stepped up. Those religious organisations should have stepped up, but they did not. We held a royal commission that found that common law had not developed sufficiently in relation to organisational sexual abuse; well, why hadn’t the organisations evolved sufficiently to respond to this in a Christian, humane and responsible way?
Recommendation 91 of the royal commission proposes this legislative reform that would make organisations liable for abuse perpetrated by persons associated with the organisation unless the organisation proved it took reasonable steps to prevent the abuse. Not a single organisation has shown that it took reasonable steps to prevent abuse.
Recommendation 26.4 of the Betrayal of Trust report, which preceded the royal commission, recommended that the Victorian government identify whether legislative amendment could be made to ensure organisations are held accountable and have a legal duty to take reasonable care to prevent criminal child abuse. This bill provides some of that legislative change so that common law can do what it could not do before, and I commend this bill for that.
For me — and I think for Ms Springle and I am sure for Ms Crozier as well — this is an issue that is very close to my heart. Looking back, in April 2000 I published a booklet called Hypocrites. I sent this booklet to every state and federal member of Parliament, every local council and every church. In this booklet we recorded the 450 cases that had been heard from victims of child sexual abuse in religious organisations. That was just a snapshot, a 10‑year snapshot of cases that had actually made it to court, not even looking at the thousands and thousands and thousands of cases that did not make it to court. When I was reading it I remembered what I stated in the introduction:
Nearly 450 individual child sexual assaults by church clergy are referenced in this publication as having been dealt with by Australian courts in the short space of 10 years. This shows that, as a profession, the priesthood has lost its direction and has become a real danger to the community. The scale of this travesty is so great that only the highest level enquiry will get to the bottom of it.
As I sent this to every member of Parliament — state and federal — local governments and the churches, I wrote:
We ask for your help and support in encouraging the federal government to conduct a royal commission into child sexual abuse amongst church clergy and officials, immediately.
That was in April 2000, and 17 years later we had that royal commission. Countless people have died without receiving recognition of the abuse that they underwent. Many of them were never, ever able to be open about the abuse that was perpetrated against them as small children. They were never able to tell their families and never able to tell their friends. Many of them were just completely torn asunder by the abuse, never, ever reconciling it, many committing suicide as a result.
As I said, I sent that out in 2000, asking for support for a royal commission. I got death threats. I got letters from MPs who had ripped Hypocrites up into tiny little pieces and returned them to me saying, ‘You are offensive’. This was a report about court documents of 450 sexual abuse cases. I do not like to speak ill of the dead, but I wrote to Senator Harradine on numerous occasions about this. He saw himself as the representative of the Catholic Church in the federal Parliament — silence, absolute silence.
While this bill is going forward, I am still so deeply ashamed and disappointed and saddened that we have not been able to help thousands and thousands of people who have died. However, I hope that this does start some process of recovery for some people. The royal commission has started that process, the national redress scheme, when we get it, will continue that process and the Betrayal of Trust inquiry also has been assisting with this. We are recognising it.
We know that there are so many people out there suffering depression, post‑traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues and that there have been suicides and suicide attempts. It is all too common for people who have suffered this abuse. It is shameful how widespread it was and that we knew. We knew what was going on in Mildura and we knew what was going on in Ballarat, but we still could not bring ourselves to do something.
We are anticipating 65 000 child abuse redress claims nationally, with 19 000 just in Victoria. We know that the average age of those victims was 10 for the girls and 11 for the boys. As I have mentioned before, we will not know the true number of victims. When you think of the victims’ families and you think of some of those people who have never been able to stay in stable relationships, have never been able to have healthy relationships with their partners or their children because of this abuse, you realise that it is not just about those who were actually abused.
I am proud of the work that we did with Hypocrites and the small part that we played. I am proud that we were the first political party to call for a royal commission. The passage of this bill today in many respects is in part the culmination of those efforts, the efforts of thousands of Victorians, the efforts of brave people like the Fosters who did not accept the criticism and the abuse that they received from the Catholic Church in response to the abuse that the Catholic Church had perpetrated on their children. It is their bravery and the wonderful work that they have done that have brought us to what is a significant change. I compliment the government for doing this.
As I highlighted last sitting week in this chamber, many religious institutions exist as sizeable and wealthy organisations in the real world yet are unincorporated associations or trusts with no distinct legal personality that could be sued. Obviously this is the crux of this bill. It has long been my party’s standing policy that we should legislate to give faith‑based institutions a corporate identity so that they may sue and they may be sued, just like any other individual or company.
My preference would have been that this bill followed the actual recommendations of the royal commission and the Betrayal of Trust report, which were to force incorporation upon these bodies, not to just politely ask them to incorporate and if they do not do so, take it to the next level of forcing them to note a trustee. I think if we had forced incorporation upon these organisations, we would have a more transparent set of corporate governance measures for these institutions. Not just in part for addressing compensation but for a whole range of reasons I want to see greater transparency within these organisations. We know that they are not transparent, that they operate under a shroud of secrecy. I think I made those points very clearly last sitting week.
Irrespective of its structure, the duty to prevent child abuse will at last extend to unincorporated associations, including religious associations, because that is where so much of this abuse has occurred. Again, I am so sad that we had to bring these organisations to this kicking and screaming. Why did we not have those organisations and the national bodies that represent them, like the Australian Christian Lobby, calling on their members to incorporate, calling on them to stand up, accept and recognise the past crimes that their organisations perpetrated against young children?
But I am very pleased that this legislation is going forward. I am pleased that further opportunities to seek redress are on the horizon. I suspect we will see legislation in this house in the not‑too‑distant future. We cannot undo what has occurred, as much as I would love to, or bring back lives that have been lost as a result. But at least now some of those victims can claim compensation and maybe that will enable them to actually come out to speak openly about the hidden pain and suffering that they have had. It might give them an opportunity not only to seek compensation but to seek the medical and psychological assistance that they need. So it is with great emotion that I do commend this bill to the house.