Do ask, do tell: Commission calls for mandatory reporting of child sex abuse
By Melissa Cunningham
Sydney Morning Herald
December 15, 2017
People working closely with children, such as priests or foster carers, should be forced to tell police about sexual abuse under mandatory reporting laws, a royal commission has found.
Religious ministers, out-of-home care workers, childcare workers, registered psychologists and school counsellors should be brought into line with police, doctors and nurses who are all obliged by law to report sexual abuse.
This would include any abuse disclosures made to clergy in confession.
In its final report, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has called for a systematic overhaul of the culture, structure and governance practices which allowed paedophiles to flourish.
The commission called for state and federal governments to bring in a single obligatory reporting model which would mean all individuals who work with children are required to report sexual abuse.
Without a legal obligation to tell police about abuses, many staff and volunteers failed to let anyone outside the institution know, the commission found.
Changes to criminal sentencing standards are also among the sweeping recommendations made by commissioners. Abusers should no longer be able to hide behind their offences being historical, with the commission calling for perpetrators to be sentenced in accordance with contemporary sentencing standards rather than standards at the time of the offence.
It also recommended that the federal government set up a national strategy to prevent child sexual abuse.
Some major recommendations are:
The ministry of all religious churches should not be exempt from reporting information discovered in religious confession
The Australian Catholic Church should request permission from the Vatican to introduce voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy
State and territory governments should introduce legislation to create a criminal offence of failure to protect a child from risk of abuse within an institution
A national strategy to prevent child abuse
Candidates for religious ministry should undergo external psychological testing, including psycho-sexual assessment, for the purposes of determining their suitability to be a person in religious ministry and to undertake work involving children
Each religious organisation should consider establishing a national register which records information to assist affiliated institutions identify and respond to any risks to children that may be posed by people in religious or pastoral ministry
Any person in religious ministry who is the subject of a complaint of child sexual abuse which is substantiated or who is convicted of an offence relating to child sexual abuse, should be permanently removed from ministry
"There is no simple explanation for why child sexual abuse has occurred in a multitude of institutions," the final report says.
"However, we have identified a number of ways in which institutions may, inadvertently or otherwise, enable or create opportunities for abuse."
The greatest number of alleged perpetrators and abused children were in Catholic institutions, the commission found.
Commissioners have also called the establishment of a new National Office for Child Safety.
It is proposed that the office would be part of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
For the next five years, all governments should be accountable in open reports to their parliaments on how they are implementing the commission's recommendations, the inquiry said.
The commissioners also recommended that the federal government establish a national framework for child safety, including the appointment of a government minister to oversee child policy issues.
The commissioners have identified 10 mandatory child safety standards they say are essential for every institution in Australia.
These include embedding child safety in institutional leadership, governance and culture, and giving children a voice to ensure their concerns are taken seriously.
The commission's report on sport, recreation, arts, culture community and hobby group recommends that local governments appoint child safety officers to help community-based institutions.
Officers would work to improve safety in change rooms, club rooms and at sporting grounds, and would be particularly important in regional and remote areas, the report says.
The inquiry found existing support services are severely under-funded and do not have the capacity to meet the complex needs of sexual abuse victims.
"Inadequacies are most apparent when a victim or survivor is experiencing multiple and complex impacts from the trauma of child sexual abuse, particularly if they are deemed as not fitting within the remit of a single service," the report found.
The commission found the Salvation Army, which ran children's homes and juvenile detention centres, acted appallingly in the way it failed to respond compassionately to victims of abuse.
The culture of the organisation meant managers wielded absolute authority over children who were devalued as a result.
"Victims of child sexual abuse in Salvation Army homes who disclosed they had been abused were frequently disbelieved or accused of lying, or no action was taken in response to their disclosures," the report stated.
"In some cases victims who disclosed sexual abuse were physically punished or further abused as a result."
The commission heard from 294 survivors of abuse in the Salvation Army.
The average age of a victim was 10 years old. Most perpetrators were residential care workers, but it had one of the highest proportions of child-on-child abuse.
In significant reforms targeting schools, facilities servicing children would be made directly liable for abuse committed by their staff, regardless of whether the school was negligent.
This would require states and territories to legislate for a non-delegable duty of care.
And students would be taught about signs of grooming, sexual abuse and online exploitation in the school curriculum – as well as extra education for parents, tertiary students preparing to work with children and people who believe they are at risk of abusing children.
'We have completed our work'
After a five-year inquiry which uncovered the horrific extent of institutional child sexual abuse, the commission found many institutions had failed children over many decades, while the child protection, criminal and civil justice systems let them down.
Royal commission chief executive Philip Reed said the findings highlight the multiple and persistent failings of institutions to keep children safe, the cultures of secrecy and cover-up, and the devastating affects child sexual abuse can have on an individual's life.
"The final report tells the story of institutional child sexual abuse in Australia, and provides recommendations to shape a safer future for children," Mr Reed said.
"We have now completed our work. It's up to governments and institutions to take the next steps and implement the royal commission's recommendations."
The final report runs to 17 volumes and includes 189 new recommendations, many of which are aimed at making institutions safer for children.
Its release comes after three final reports already released including one on criminal justice, redress and civil litigation.
In total, the commissioners have made 409 recommendations.
Two versions of the final report were handed to Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove on Friday morning, one of which has been redacted for publication, and an unredacted version royal commission chair Justice Peter McClellan recommended was published once all criminal proceedings into alleged perpetrators have been completed.
It's been described as a national tragedy, with tens of thousands of victims in more 4000 individual institutions.
More than 15,000 survivors or their relatives have contacted the commission.
The true number of victims will likely never be known, with the commission estimating as many as 60 per cent will never disclose their abuse.
After 8000 private sessions, 1200 witnesses and 444 days of public hearings, the inquiry has made more than 2500 referrals to authorities including police.
Prior to the handing down of Friday's report, the royal commission had already called for significant reforms in areas such as the criminal and civil systems as well as measures to make institutions safer for children.
It found some leaders, believed their primary responsibility was to protect the institution's reputation and perpetrators ahead of the welfare of children.
The commission has also made recommendations on how a national redress scheme for abuse survivors should work, with commission modelling estimated 60,000 survivors would be eligible to make a compensation claim under a national redress scheme.
Justice McClellan has warned the sexual abuse of children is not just a problem from the past, with children continuing to be abused in institutions today.
"The sexual abuse of any child is intolerable in a civilised society," he said at the final sitting of the hearing on Thursday.
"It is the responsibility of our entire community to acknowledge that children are being abused.
"We must each resolve that we should do what we can to protect them."