By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended that clergy who fail to report child sexual assaults disclosed during religious confessions should face criminal charges.
The Commissioners heard evidence that confessions of child sexual abuse were not reported to authorities, and says that protecting children is more important than the confessional seal.
The Catholic Church is against the recommendation, arguing that undermining religious privilege would do more harm than good, as offenders would simply “not confess their sins and seek redemption”.
Voice of victims
Stephen Woods was abused by notorious child sexual offender, priest Gerald Ridsdale, and brother Robert Charles Best while a student at St Alipius primary school in Ballarat.
Mr Woods has welcomed the Commission’s recommendation, saying such a law is well overdue.
“Victims have always been advocating that there is no logical reason, none whatsoever, that child abuse should ever be hidden,” Woods told the media.
“It is the most heinous of criminal activity you can imagine, and for a religion to declare that it’s their right to hide it is a most disgusting argument. It’s immoral.”
The proposal would expand the scope of existing mandatory reporting requirements and make them consistent across the nation.
“While the existing New South Wales and Victorian offences require knowledge or belief that abuse has been committed, we have recommended that the failure to report offence should apply if a relevant person at the institution knows, suspects or should have suspected that a child is being or has been sexually abused,” the Commission’s report said.
“In line with the standard of criminal negligence, the offence would be committed on the basis that the person should have suspected only where there is a great falling short of what would be expected of a reasonable person.”
Conviction rates for child sexual offences
In March, commission chair Justice Peter McClellan told a conference of lawyers in Sydney that between July 2012 and June 2016, the conviction rate for all offences in NSW, including those finalised by a guilty plea, was 89%. But for child sexual offences, the conviction rate was just 60%.
Mr McClellan said there is a significant risk that perpetrators will continue their offending if they are not reported to police.
Rather go to prison
A Melbourne archbishop has already vowed to risk going to prison rather than report any disclosure made during a confession, including an admission of child sexual abuse.
He believes the sanctity of confessional communication are above the law.
Under section 127 of the Evidence Act a person ‘who is or was, a member of the clergy of any church or religious denomination is entitled to refuse to disclose a religious confession made to him or her, unless the confession was made for a criminal purpose’.
The section currently affords protection to religious bodies from failing to report sexual misconduct to police.
However, the section has been found to be limited in its application, with information coming from sources other than confessions falling outside its scope.
The Commission’s recommendation would mean that members of the clergy would have to report disclosures of child sexual abuse, including those made during confessions.
Responses to the recommendation
The archbishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, claims the current law are adequate, saying he would encourage a person who discloses child sexual abuse to report it to authorities or a “mandatory reporter” such as a doctor or mental health professional.
However, the Commission disagrees:
“We are satisfied that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt,” the commission’s report states.
“We heard evidence that perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.”
The chief executive of Care Leavers Australia Network, Leonie Sheedy, whose organisation represents victims of historical child sexual abuse in out-of-home care, believes religion should never take precedence over child protection.
“They should face criminal charges,” she stated. “These organisations get paid to look after kids. The heads of organisations must be vigilant at all times. Children need to be protected – they’re Australia’s greatest asset.”