THE Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended sweeping changes to criminal justice systems across Australia, including breaching the sanctity of the confessional to hold clergy responsible for reporting child sex crimes.
“Clergy should not be able to refuse to report because the information was received during confession,” said commission chief executive Philip Reid on Monday as the commission released its landmark Criminal Justice report.
“The royal commission heard of cases in religious settings where perpetrators who made a religious confession to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness. The report recommends there be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offence granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in connection with a religious confession.”
The report includes a broad range of legislative and policy changes, including reform to police and prosecution responses, evidence of complainants, sentences and appeals, and grooming offences.
The 85 recommendations in the report are in response to what commission chair Justice Peter McClellan described in April as the almost “insurmountable barriers” facing sexual abuse victims in the justice system.
They include the new offence of “failure to report”, after the commission heard extensive evidence from across the country showing victims and survivors of child sexual abuse reported the abuse both as children, and adults, with little or no response from institutions.
Clergy should not be able to refuse to report because the information was received during confession.Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse
The commission has recommended failure to report child sex allegations should be a criminal offence across the country, and not just in NSW and Victoria which have offences for failing to report child sex allegations. In NSW four Catholic clergy have been charged with failing to disclose child sexual abuse allegations or perverting the course of justice relating to child sex allegations. All have been Hunter cases.
The late Hunter priest Father Tom Brennan was convicted of making a false statement to police when he falsely denied ever being told of child sex allegations involving notorious Hunter Catholic priest John Denham.
Mr Reid said people in institutions “should report if they know, suspect or should have suspected a child is being, or has been, sexually abused”.
The royal commission has recommended that failure to protect a child within an institution from a substantial risk of sexual abuse by an adult associated with the institution should be made a criminal offence.
“The commission heard of many cases where perpetrators were moved between schools and other sites operated by the same institutions when an allegation against them was raised. They continued to abuse children in new locations,” Mr Reid said.
“All states and territories should introduce a failure to protect offence. The legislation already introduced in Victoria provides a useful precedent.”
The royal commission has recommended new laws on grooming that include the grooming of a parent or carer by a child sex offender, after extensive evidence of perpetrators ingratiating themselves with families to gain access to vulnerable children.
The commission has also recommended legislative changes to allow greater use of evidence by multiple victims where there is a single perpetrator, and greater use of joint trials.
“In a number of cases examined by the royal commission, juries have been denied the opportunity to hear accounts that give the true picture of what is alleged to have happened,” Mr Reid said.
The royal commission found there had been unwarranted acquittals after trials where juries heard evidence only from one victim, despite perpetrators having multiple victims.
Research and data examined by the royal commission found concerns that evidence from multiple victims carried a high risk of unfair prejudice to the accused were misplaced.
Mr Reid said the Criminal Justice report recommendations responded to lower rates of sexual abuse convictions in the criminal justice system when compared with conviction rates for other criminal offences.
Although the commission had focused on child sexual abuse in institutions, the 85 recommendations are likely to improve responses to child sexual abuse in all contexts, Mr Reid said.