Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) — I rise to speak to the Wrongs Amendment (Organisational Child Abuse) Bill 2016. I will not restate the purpose; I think it has been canvassed very well by the previous speakers. But in addressing child abuse the effect that this most abhorrent epidemic has had on our community is literally unquantifiable. As survivors of institutional sex abuse speak out — and we have been hearing it over the years, and certainly it has been on our TV screens most recently — usually they are speaking out after decades of painful, secretive silence. There is a terrible consistency in the effect the abuse has had on their lives. We have heard them say:
I feel pain and self-hatred. I tried to obliterate it with alcohol.
I’ve lost my right to a normal life.
I can no longer trust anyone; I always wonder whether they will betray my trust the way my abuser did.
I didn’t know who to trust, so I trusted no-one.
It made my life the living embodiment of hell.
Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse and other mental health problems are described by nearly all the victims. Suicide and suicide attempts are all too frequent. Abuse destroys people’s ability to have close relationships, and it destroys their lives. It destroys communities, as we saw in Mildura where Monsignor John Day was able to abuse tens and tens of children with almost the knowledge of that community.
The police knew. The courts knew. The hospitals knew. I visited Mildura last year, and the pain nearly 50 years later is still palpable up there. After being up there I read Denis Ryan’s Unholy Trinity, and while this bill goes some way to addressing some of the issues that he raised, what he raised was that secrecy allowed these institutions like the Catholic Church to perpetrate these most heinous crimes against children, and sadly many people in the community not only tolerated it but protected the people who did it. This bill goes some way to ending that type of protection.
When we look at how horrifyingly widespread this epidemic has been, 65 000 child abuse redress claims are anticipated nationally, with 19 000 in Victoria. In February 2017 the full extent of paedophilia in Catholic institutions was laid bare before the royal commission. It heard that almost 4500 people have made claims of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions. This is a massive failure of the Catholic Church to protect vulnerable children from their abusers, and this was all too brutally laid out in former policeman Denis Ryan’s book Unholy Trinity. It has all been brutally laid out for us in the royal commission that we have been hearing about most recently.
It is a vile stain on the fabric of our society, and redress for these survivors is vitally important. I do not have the same faith that Mr Finn has that somehow, if there is an afterlife, these brutal abusers will be suffering retribution. I do not think that answers the need, and I do not think it addresses any of the pain the survivors have felt. I had a call from Mrs Chrissie Foster from Ballarat, talking about her children Katie and Emma. Whatever happens in an afterlife, if there is one, to the abusers of those two daughters, it will never stop or address the suffering of that family.
In fact it was after that call that I was proud to be the leader of the first political party in Australia to call for a royal commission into institutional sexual abuse, and it is very important work that the royal commission has done. I am proud also that we as members of Parliament are working hard to implement legislative change that will confine systemic sexual abuse of this nature to the past.
In its final report into redress and civil litigation the royal commission found that the common law had not developed sufficiently in relation to organisational sexual abuse. Recommendation 91 proposes legislative reform that will make organisations liable for abuse perpetrated by persons associated with the organisation, unless the organisation proves it had taken reasonable steps to prevent abuse, and we certainly have not seen those reasonable steps in the past.
I too would like to commend the chair, Ms Crozier, on the work that was done in the Betrayal of Trust inquiry. It must have been quite harrowing to listen to some of the experiences and stories that those committee members would have heard. Recommendation 26.4 of the Betrayal of Trust report 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 responsible care to prevent criminal child abuse. This bill provides that important legislative change. In doing so, it deals with both recommendation 91 of the royal commission and recommendation 26.4 of the Betrayal of Trust report. I support this bill — I do not just not oppose it, but I absolutely support it — and I commend the fault-based duty and the reversal of onus of proof as key features of this statutory response.
But we need to go a lot further. We can do a lot more. This is important change, but it only extends to organisations that are capable of being sued, and sadly it is only prospective. Many religious institutions exist as sizeable and wealthy organisations in the real world, but as unincorporated associations they have no distinct legal personality and therefore cannot be sued. For this reason many victims of child sexual abuse will continue to experience difficulty seeking redress, despite the important changes that are being made by this bill. It is my party’s policy that we should legislate to give faith-based institutions a corporate identity so they may sue and be sued, just like anyone else. The duty to prevent child abuse must extend to unincorporated associations, where so much of this abuse has occurred.
I acknowledge that some unincorporated associations have done this and set up legal entities for child abuse plaintiffs to sue, and I commend those organisations, while others have pledged to nominate legal entities to act as proper defendants in child abuse litigation. But others of course have not pledged to do anything, nor will they volunteer to be sued. Those organisations in which child abuse occurred must be liable for that abuse. An opt-in redress scheme is simply not strong enough.
I support the changes introduced by this bill, but I encourage this government to go further. We need to ensure that those 19 000, or probably more, Victorians who have already experienced child sexual abuse receive appropriate redress that can go somewhat towards helping the pain and damage that has been perpetrated against them. We must ensure that unincorporated organisations cannot hide from their obligations to victims of child abuse. I commend the bill to the house.