Child Welfare Report Calls for Church Abuse Inquiry

By Liz Hobday
ABC - the World Today
February 29, 2012

[with audio]

ELEANOR HALL: The report from the Cummins Inquiry into vulnerable children in Victoria has made wide-ranging recommendations to improve the State Government's child protection systems.

But committee also recommended changes to the way that religious organisations deal with abuse, and it says a new investigation is needed to look at that issue.

In Melbourne, Liz Hobday reports.

LIZ HOBDAY: The Cummins report isn't short on advice. After a year looking into child welfare in Victoria it's made more than 90 recommendations.

Among the more controversial is the recommendation that religious ministers should be subject to the mandatory reporting of child abuse.

Here's the Minister for Community Services Mary Wooldridge on ABC Melbourne's Jon Faine program:

MARY WOOLDRIDGE: Well another obviously very controversial and important recommendation...

JON FAINE: It shouldn't be controversial. Why should it be controversial?

MARY WOOLDRIDGE: Well, because any extension to mandatory reporting from a system we've had that's been in place for 15 years has implications but we...

JON FAINE: Given the track record of religious organisations of several denominations surely this one is unarguably needed.

MARY WOOLDRIDGE: Well what we'll be doing is meeting with the religious organisations, meeting with the community - who feel very strongly about it, obviously - and we will have a response in time in relation to that.

LIZ HOBDAY: That track record on abuse issues has made headlines in Victoria again and again.

Last year it emerged that in one region of country Victoria more than 30 people had committed suicide after being abused by priests.

Helen Last from the group In Good Faith and Associates has lobbied the Catholic Church to introduce mandatory reporting.

HELEN LAST: We have talked about the need for clergy to be educated into understanding that victims, criminal matters must be reported to the proper authority, but we have not received any positive response from them in that regard.

LIZ HOBDAY: What do you think of the recommendation for a separate inquiry into religious organisations and the way that they deal with sexual abuse?

HELEN LAST: I think it's absolutely necessary and very, very urgent. We are in touch with so many victims and their families who are suffering terribly because they have either not reported yet to the church or the police because of their lack of faith in those organisations or they have gone to the church and they have found that process to be totally inappropriate for them and in fact it has caused them more harm.

LIZ HOBDAY: The Cummins report says a separate investigation is needed into the way religions respond to cases of abuse perpetrated by those within their own organisations. It says the investigation should have the power to subpoena documents and compel witnesses to give evidence.

Helen Last says the Melbourne Archdiocese of the Catholic Church has information on abuse cases stretching back decades.

She also says the church's new policy on child safety, released late last year, isn't adequate and should be examined by any inquiry.

HELEN LAST: The policies that are released do not put reporting crimes to the police authorities as the primary principle for practice. It is not there and also, the reporting systems as they stand are totally in house. They are to people that have been there for 16 years.

LIZ HOBDAY: While some figures within the Catholic Church have said they are open to the prospect of an inquiry into abuse, the Melbourne Archdiocese has released a statement saying it's still considering the recommendations of the Cummins report.

The Victorian Opposition says it's also considering the report before responding.

The State Government yesterday said it would create a new independent children's commission, and says the commission will look into a further investigation of abuse within religious organisations.

ELEANOR HALL: Liz Hobday in Melbourne.


Any original material on these pages is copyright 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.