The Victorian State Parliamentary Enquiry Report (Or: Better Than We Thought Possible)


The Victorian state Parliamentary Enquiry into child sexual abuse by clergy has presented its 800 page report to the Victorian Parliament.  It is entitled “Betrayal of Trust”. It contains recommendations hoped for, but not necessarily expected, to control the excesses of religious organisations. While the report and recommendations apply only to the state of Victoria, it is anticipated that the reforms will be adopted by other states, and will be revisited by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. National legislation is likely, eventually, for consistency of approach and to encompass crimes which cross state borders.

The bi-partisan inquiry heard from more than 450 victims over a 12 month period, and its report names the Catholic Church and the Salvation Army as the main culprits. However, it notes that the Catholic Church was responsible for six times as many abuse cases as all of the other churches combined.

It has compiled 604 complaint files, but notes that the number of victims, in Victoria State alone, runs into the thousands. It has referred 135 previously-unreported claims of child sex abuse to the police Sano Taskforce, set up to investigate institutionalized child abuse. More such referrals are expected to be made. Overall, it received 578 submissions and held 162 hearings, of which 56 were private, including in the cities of Melbourne, Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong. As a result, the report states that the churches “stand condemned”.

The Victorian enquiry is one of about 80 enquiries over recent years, so that it is about time for actions as well as enquiries.

The main recommendations from the report are as follows:

1. Compulsory reporting to police – Legislative amendments to ensure that a person who fails to report, or conceals, child abuse will be guilty of an offence. At present, under section 326 of Victoria’s Crimes Act, it must be proved that a person who conceals a serious indictable offence “received a benefit” and the committee recommends that this “element of ‘gain’ should be removed”. At present, this is what has let clergy off the hook, even where a cover-up has been firmly established. The recommendation is in conflict with the Catholic Church’s stance on the “inviolability of the confessional”.

2. New child endangerment offence – Making it a criminal offence for people in authority to knowingly put a child at risk, or fail to remove them from a known risk. This applies to the practice of transferring offenders to new parishes or schools, where new victims are often produced. It thus puts the onus on the official who engages in this practice. The recommendation refers to the situation in which “a person gives responsibility to another for the care of children and is aware there is a risk of harm to those children and who fails to take reasonable steps to protect them from that risk”. There will no doubt be debate about what being “aware there is a risk of harm” means and how “failing to take reasonable steps” is actually defined.

3.A new grooming offence – Creation of a separate criminal offence extending beyond current grooming laws to make it an offence to groom a child, their parents or others with the intention of committing a sexual offence against the child (regardless of whether the sexual offence occurs). A problem with this may be that it would be able to be challenged by smart lawyers for being too vague a definition. Parliament would have to be very specific, as to what constitutes “grooming”, in its legislation here to avoid such problems.

4. Address legal entity of non-government organisations – Require non-government organisations to be incorporated and adequately insured. This is a critical recommendation for the ability of victims to sue churches, and removes the appalling “Ellis Defence” used in the past by Cardinal George Pell to avoid paying compensation (see previous posting). It also removes the practice of setting up trusts for church money which are immune from the courts, for example the bogus “cemetery maintenance trusts” (see previous posting).  The provision for compulsory insurance removes the defence of “yes, but we’ll just declare bankruptcy”. In the absence of a clear pathway to the courts, in the past, victims have had to merely accept the church’s, pathetic, settlements.

5. New structures – The Victorian Government is to work with the Federal Government to require organisations that engage with children to adopt incorporated legal structures. Again, this recommendation makes churches able to be sued. This is to be a requirement for government funds. If the recommendation is adopted, the churches would face losing billions of dollars in funding, and tax exemptions, for non-compliance.

6. Remove time limits – Legislative amendments to exclude criminal child abuse from the current statute of limitations, recognizing it can take decades for victims to come forward. This change will mean that most cases will no longer be excluded from the civil courts.

7. Assistance applications – Legislative amendments to specify no time limits apply to applications for assistance by victims of criminal child abuse. Again, this will mean that many claims, blocked in the past, will become possible.

8. Duty of care – Ensure organisations are held accountable and have a legal duty to prevent criminal child abuse. Probably, the main effect of this recommendation will be that courts will rule in favour of much higher compensation because it not only takes the offence and its effects into consideration, but also includes the additional harm associated with the concept of duty of care.

9. Specific scheme for victims of child abuse – An independent alternative avenue for justice for victims not in a position to pursue civil claims in the courts. It will be operated independently of organisations but paid for by the organisations. This recommendation derives from the failure of existing, church-run, compensation schemes, such as the totally discredited “Melbourne Response” and “Towards Healing” programs (see previous postings). The idea is that the government would control a scheme, funded not by the taxpayer, but rather funded by the churches. This is one recommendation that will be very much opposed by the churches.

10. Independent statutory body – To oversee and monitor the handling of child abuse allegations by organisations, undertake independent investigations and scrutinize and audit systems in place. The key word here is “independent” in its real meaning, and not in the meaning given to it by people like George Pell, where the “independent” body is funded by the church, and therefore controlled by it. The powers of the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal would be broadened so that those who for practical, including financial, reasons cannot seek redress in the courts can be assured of independent resolution of claims.

11. Review – Current Department of Education and early childhood development procedures for responding to child abuse allegations. This recommendation should make the non-government organisations held to the same standards required of government agencies. That is, one standard for everybody, which is, ultimately determined by the people, and not just by the organisations. It also imposes one standard for all non-government organisations, and this is necessary because, at present, standards vary greatly.

12. Effective selection of suitable personnel – Institute a system of compliance under the Working with Children Act. This simply brings the churches under the same requirements as are in place for other non-government organisations which work with children, such as the YMCA, Scouts Australia and commercial child-care providers.

13. Manage situational risk – The Government should review its contractual and funding arrangements with organisations that work with children to ensure a minimum standard for a child-safe environment. This effectively ties funding to strict adherence to laws governing accountability for staff training, checks and monitoring. The recent hearings of the Royal Commission have addressed this issue.

14. Prevention systems and processes – The Government should identify a way to support peak bodies to build preventative capacity. This is a very broad concept which will require a lot of meetings with stakeholders before a concrete program is developed. It is likely that the recommendations of the Royal Commission will set the standard here, and that the states will adopt its recommendations.

15. Awareness – The Government to ensure non-government organisations are equipped with information regarding the prevention of child abuse. While this is the most obvious recommendation, its inclusion does remove the long-held excuse that the churches were not aware of the problems and harm associated with child sexual abuse. This can no longer provide a smokescreen for culpability.

The report is particularly damning of Catholic Cardinal, George Pell.

The report concluded that Cardinal Pell’s response revealed “a reluctance to acknowledge and accept responsibility for the Catholic Church’s institutional failure to respond appropriately to allegations of criminal child abuse”. Pell’s evidence “seemed to indicate… the church’s central aim was to safe-guard its own interests.” Pell and his church “minimized and trivialized the problem and behaved in complete contrast to their purported values.” It was not just former leaders such as Sir Frank Little or Ronald Mulkearns, unable to defend themselves, who saw child abuse as a “short-term embarrassment” that did not require examination of the church’s own culture. It was also “today’s leaders such as George Pell”.

The committee also criticized Cardinal Pell over his attempts to separate the actions of individuals from the wider church. In his evidence Pell said the church “was not guilty of covering up abuse,” although some individuals were.

The committee also challenged Cardinal Pell over a speech he gave in Ireland in 2011 in which he said a Supreme Court judge had advised him the sex abuse scandal “would bleed us to death” if not cleaned up. The report further said that it was “noteworthy” that the description of objectives, for Pell’s “Melbourne Response”, contains “no acknowledgement of the terrible suffering of victims.”

It went on to say that Pell’s “Melbourne Response” and “Towards Healing” protocols (see previous postings) “were often not truly independent, providing only generic apologies and offers of compensation without admissions of guilt.”  The report says these two systems were “not independent of the church and had failed many victims.” Apologies were “generic”, and compensation was “awarded without a detailed explanation of why it was being provided,” and “without admission of guilt.” The Anglican Church and Salvation Army received similar criticism.

Most of the committee’s report focused on the Catholic Church, but others were also criticized in more general terms for similar short-comings. Here are some of the references to the Catholic Church.

Senior Catholic Church leaders, such as Melbourne Archbishop, Denise Hart (see previous postings), “protected pedophiles, allowed them to keep offending and kept Victorians in the dark about the problem.” They “trivialized” complaints and “their protection of pedophiles meant abuse happened when it could have been avoided.”  They “moved known sexual offenders between parishes without reporting them to police.”

The report notes that the Catholic Church’s structure “assisted in covering up sexual abuse through a system of non-accountability.” It also “ensured perpetrators weren’t held accountable.” Along with other churches, it had “made a deliberate choice not to follow processes for reporting and responding to allegations of criminal child abuse.”

The report concludes that “There has been a substantial body of credible evidence presented to the inquiry, and ultimately concessions made by senior representatives of religious bodies, including the Catholic Church, that they had taken steps with the direct objective of concealing wrongdoing.” It could not have stated its conclusion more distinctly.

Committee member, Andrea Coote, explained to the Parliament that the focus on the failings of the Catholic Church, in particular, was due to “the volume and content of the submissions the committee received.”  She said that “We found that today’s church leaders view the current question of abuse of children as a ‘short term embarrassment’, which should be handled as quickly as possible to cause the least damage to the church’s standing . They do not see the problems as raising questions about the church’s own culture.”

In more general terms, the report “rejected evidence of other church leaders that awareness of sexual abuse was slow to percolate through society and the church.” The enquiry found that “children subjected to criminal abuse have been less likely to be adequately protected in religious organisations than in any other group in society.”  The inquiry had heard “graphic accounts that detailed horrendous and traumatic experiences of victims abused as children in the care of non-government organisations that spanned a period of decades through to more recent times.”

Enquiry chairwoman, Georgie Crozier, made several comments when presenting the report. She said children had “suffered terribly” and were “betrayed by trusted figures in organisations of high standing and suffered unimaginable harm. Parents of these children experienced a betrayal beyond comprehension. And the community was betrayed by the failure of organisations to protect children in their care.”

She went on to say that “a sliding morality has emerged in the Catholic Church, which emphasizes the interests of the perpetrator and the church. They do not see the problems as raising questions about the church’s own culture. She referred to “a pattern of criminal behaviour”, and of “parents being groomed” compounded by the “covering up of wrong-doing to protect reputations and money.”

The report gave a mixed account of police efforts. It criticized them for the way it had previously handled claims of sexual abuse, particularly within the Catholic Church, saying that police had paid “inadequate attention” to the fundamental problems of the Catholic Church’s Melbourne Response complaints arrangements, until April last year. “When they did become the subject of public attention, Victoria Police representatives endeavoured quite unfairly to distance the organisation from them,” the report said.

It also said some victims told the inquiry police had not provided the support, intervention and investigation they had hoped for. There was a lack of intervention by police, and victims who escaped non-government institutions were often escorted back there by police. However, it reported that Victoria Police had changed the way it dealt with victims of sexual abuse. It “recognized” their work in dealing with victims of sexual abuse, and stated that the approach adopted by police towards victims was “vitally important because it could increase the rate of reporting and conviction and reduce the attrition rate.”

For their part, Victorian police say they’re pleased the issues raised by the inquiry have been given the prominence and scrutiny they demanded. They had made significant submissions to the inquiry, including that the Catholic Church destroyed evidence, shielded paedophile clergy members and put its own image ahead of the needs of victims.

The various churches issued the usual media releases saying how they welcomed the report etc. George Pell issued one saying how happy he was about it, but declined all media requests for interview. His underling, Hart, did appear on TV to say things were really good now, and maintained perfect composure while saying how much he felt for the victims.

Usually, society expects that religious leaders have a high level of compassion for, and empathy with, other people. In contrast, it is often the view of the general public that politicians are less so, and even are inclined to be somewhat hard-nosed. Today, that was dramatically reversed.

Victorian Premier, Dr. Denis Napthine, who was raised a Catholic, said that “I can’t claim to be a practicing Catholic at the moment, but let me say I’m ashamed and embarrassed by the actions of the Catholic Church. The leaders of the Catholic Church who were involved in some of these actions ought to absolutely hang their heads in shame, and that’s the least of what they should do.’’ He said that his government would “immediately begin drafting new legislation, which should be introduced to parliament early next year.”

Dr. Napthine told Parliament that “the evidence throughout the report is that the Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in regard to their approach and culture and their culture seemed to be one of protecting their priests and putting the interests of the church ahead of the interests of children and victims. That is totally and utterly wrong.”

In Parliament, when the report was presented, politicians from all sides, according to media reports, “showed raw emotion when discussing the inquiry, with sympathetic handshakes and hugs crossing party lines.” Members of Parliament “wiped back tears as the listened to their colleagues talk about the inquiry.”  In the Victorian Upper House, both parliamentary members and the packed gallery applauded all the speeches, with council president Bruce Atkinson saying: “It’s hard to stop the gallery from applauding when the members do.”

Inquiry committee members, including Liberal’s Nick Wakeling and Labor’s Bronwyn Halfpenny, “choked back tears” as they detailed the work of the committee and the harrowing stories they heard. Mr Wakeling said hearing the evidence had taken its toll on some and paid tribute to all those who participated. National’s Tim Bull said the greatest betrayal of trust was the rape of children. Labor’s Sharon Knight said the inquiry was “beyond politics” and praised the bipartisan work of the committee.

Mr O’Brien, the Western Victoria MLC, became particularly emotional when talking about the abuse effects on the Ballarat diocese, breaking down on several occasions. “The rape of children, or criminal child abuse, is a gross abuse of trust. And trusted organisations covered up these crimes.” Mr O’Brien listed all the towns in the Ballarat diocese where child sex abuse had occurred as a testament to the victims. “This list refutes any suggestion abuse was not systemic in the Ballarat diocese,” he said.

He said many towns contained numerous victims as offenders were moved around the diocese. “It affected whole Western Victorian communities and, for that, the church stands condemned.” Mr O’Brien said the task for victims and their families would go on, but the committee hoped its recommendations would provide genuine reparation for all victims.

Read more here:

TOMORROW: Comments from victims and activists

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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