In 2015, a range of reforms were introduced by the NSW government in response to community concerns that child sex offenders were being treated far too leniently by the courts, and that the interests of complainants weren’t being protected.
These reforms included the introduction of “child champions” to support complainants and their families through the legal process, new laws allowing for the use of pre-recorded statements of complainants in court, and an increase in the maximum penalty for sexual intercourse with a child less than the age of 10 under section 66A of the Crimes Act 1900 from 25 years to life imprisonment.
Since then, the federal government has also enacted tough new measures against both convicted and suspected child sex offenders, including laws making it easier to convict adults suspected of engaging inappropriately with minors online and harder for child sex offenders to travel overseas.
Now, the NSW government is set to increase the maximum penalty for ‘persistent sexual abuse of a child’ and introduce four new four new offences aimed at protecting children against abuse.
Persistent child sexual abuse
Section 66EA of the Crimes Act makes it an offence punishable by up to 25 years’ imprisonment for a person to engage in conduct relating to a particular child that constitutes a sexual offence on 3 or more separate separate days during any period.
It is immaterial whether or not the conduct is of the same nature, or constitutes the same offence, on each occasion, and only one of the offences needs to have occurred in New South Wales.
The proposed new laws will increase the maximum penalty for the offence to life imprisonment.
Four new offences
The government also proposes to enact the following new offences:
- Failure to report child abuse – maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment;
- Failure to protect a child from abuse – maximum penalty of 2 years;
- Grooming of an adult to gain access to a child – maximum penalty of 6 years; and
- Sexual touching of a child aged 16 or 17 under the special care of the offender – maximum penalty of 4 years.
Child Abuse Royal Commission
In a media statement this week, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced her government would be accepting the “overwhelming majority of the Royal Commission’s criminal justice recommendations” and “leave no stone unturned” when it comes to protecting victims of child sexual assault.
Additional reforms include:
- precluding courts from considering an offender’s prior good character as a mitigating factors during sentencing, and
- requiring courts to apply current sentencing standards and an understanding of the lifelong effects of child sexual abuse during the sentencing process, and
Seal of confession remains unbroken
However, contrary to the recommendations of the Royal Commission and to the delight of Christian leaders, the premier stopped short of proposing laws which would “break the seal of confessions” – in other words, that would force religious leaders to report information about child sexual abuse received during a confession.
On Easter Sunday, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher made it clear Catholic leaders would keep the lid on that seal regardless of what the law says, or the information received.
“This precious sacrament (confession), too, is threatened today both by neglect and attack… But priests will, we know, suffer punishment, even martyrdom, rather than break the seal of confession.
Despite allowing the Church to keep the seal on confessions of child sexual abuse, the premier believes the new reform package is a significant step forward in the protection of children, the exposure of abuse and the punishment of offenders.