Victoria Australia eliminates clergy reporting exceptions

Sumeyya Ilanbey
Sumeyya is a state political reporter for The Age.
Mandatory reporting laws for religious institutions come into effect
  • Laws requiring clergy to report child abuse to authorities — even if it’s heard in the confession box — will come into effect on Monday (Feb 24, 2020), ending the “special treatment” for Victoria’s religious institutions.

The seal has now been lifted for the suspected sexual abuse of children, with spiritual and religious leaders required to report the abuse or face up to three years in prison.

“From [Monday], our promise to put the safety of children ahead of the secrecy of the confession is in full effect and there is no excuse for people who fail to report abuse,” said Attorney-General Jill Hennessy.

The changes bring religious and spiritual leaders in line with teachers, police, medical practitioners, nurses, school counsellors, and early childhood and youth justice workers, who are required to report the abuse and mistreatment of children.

The Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 followed a recommendation in the 2017 final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse that clergy and confession no longer be exempt from mandatory reporting.

The new laws also ensure the disclosures are not exempt under the Failure to Disclose Offence in the Crimes Act, and allows survivors of institutional abuse to apply to the courts to have their unfair historical compensation payments overturned.

When the Victorian Parliament passed the Bill in September, Premier Daniel Andrews said it was intended to send a message all the way to the top of the Catholic Church in Rome, while Child Protection Minister Luke Donnellan said the “special treatment” for churches had ended.

“Victoria is a safer place because of these laws — there are now no excuses for people in religious ministry not to report physical and sexual abuse to authorities,” Mr Donnellan said this week.

Chrissie Foster, a high-profile advocate for victims of child sexual abuse and Member of the Order of Australia, said the need for mandatory reporting was highlighted by the case of Father Michael McArdle who – in a sworn affidavit – stated he had confessed to sexually abusing children 1500 times to 30 different priests over a 25-year period in face-to-face confessions.

“The Catholic priesthood says confession is sacrosanct. I say the bodies of children are sacrosanct,” Ms Foster said.

“Sacrosanct means something too important or valuable to be interfered with — this describes our children and every child.”

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