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Criminal Code and Related Legislation Amendment (Child Abuse) Bill 2018

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Tags: Legislation, Royal Commission, Child Abuse, Catholic Church

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse shocked the nation. It revealed in the most appalling and confronting detail the systemic abuse of children who were entrusted to religious institutions. Some of these children were wards of the state. Some of these children were altar boys. Many of these children were attending church-run educational facilities or they were just there as part of the congregation.

What we learned through the royal commission is that there was a culture of mistreating and abusing children at multiple layers of multiple religious institutions and that in too many cases those abuses were covered up. Only today there are reports about a former Victorian Catholic priest, Paul Ryan, from Warrnambool who, over the course of his career in the church, abused boys and has now been sentenced again as the result of an investigation that was initiated through evidence that was tendered to the royal commission. In one instance he abused a child in the confessional. We know that in the confessional, which is to the Catholic Church the most sacred of places, children have been abused. The confessional has been used to cover up crimes by priests of the Catholic Church.

I note the Attorney-General acknowledging the concerns of church leaders about this legislation but rightly standing firm on ensuring this parliament recognises that there is no safe place for paedophiles and that we will enact legislation that protects children however we can, wherever we can. I do commend the Attorney-General for bringing this legislation into this place.

We note that this amendment bill amends four specific pieces of legislation including the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act 1997 to provide that priests, members of the church, who hear information relating to child abuse in the confessional are notifiers for the purposes of the Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act as are now members of parliament. It surprised me that we were not already mandatory notifiers for the purposes of the Act and I hope that every member in this place believed they were before this legislation came to this place.

What these amendments do is ensure that no member of the clergy may rely on the confidential space of the confessional in order to justify not notifying law enforcement authorities of a crime against a child. The amendments provide for the identity of notifiers to be given to law enforcement agencies.

The bill also amends the Criminal Code Act 1924 to institute the new crime of failing to report the abuse of a child. We are in this position because for decades and historically, globally for centuries churches have been covering up and, in some cases, facilitating the sexual abuse of children. It is something that religious institutions have been guilty of in the past and we want to make sure that they are not given the opportunity to be guilty of it in the future.

The legislation, the amendment bill, also amends the Evidence (Children and Special Witnesses) Act 2001 to provide for video evidence that has previously been given by a victim to be tendered to the court in another case. This is really important so that the law does not require us to retraumatise victims in hearing other matters that relate to the abuse of children. I note that the Attorney-General has responded to a request from the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute in relation to being able to, with the Attorney-General's approval and in limited circumstances, view audio-visual recordings of evidence for a review of the laws of evidence.

This amendment bill amends the Sentencing Act 1997 to require courts when setting a sentence in relation to child sexual abuse offences involving multiple discrete episodes of offending and/or where there are multiple victims to indicate the sentence that would have been imposed for each offence had separate sentences been imposed. Again, that is another important recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

I will read into the Hansard what the royal commission had to say about the treatment of religious confessions. At 35 the royal commission report states:

Each state and territory government should ensure that the legislation it introduces to create the criminal offence of failure to report recommended in recommendation 33 addresses religious confessions as follows:

(a) The criminal offence of failure to report should apply in relation to knowledge gained or suspicions that are or should have been formed in whole or in part on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession.

(b) The legislation should exclude any existing excuse, protection or privilege in relation to religious confessions to the extent necessary to achieve this objective; and

(c) Religious confession should be defined to include a confession about the conduct of a person associated with the institution, made by a person to a second person who is in religious ministry in that second person's professional capacity according to the ritual of the church or religious denomination concerned.

I have appreciated that after the initial statements of concern by Catholic Church leaders that they have had the grace not to persist in trying to prevent this legislation from being debated and passed by the Tasmanian Parliament.

We are all too familiar with the fall recently of former Cardinal Pell. Through that court case we learned there had been systemic repeated abuses of children and at the highest levels of the church hierarchy in Australia there had been a cover-up of the abuse of those children.

The victims of child sexual abuse by the clergy, many of whom are broken people, who live with persistent post-traumatic stress disorder, would have felt some measure of justice seeing that, even at the highest levels of the church, you can be found guilty, you can be convicted and you can be sent to gaol for your crimes against children.

It was an important case to reaffirm justice for the survivors of child sexual abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church in this instance. No-one in this place is pretending that it is only the Catholic Church that has been responsible for profound damage to children. In some instances, the damage has been so profound, it has broken people and they have taken their lives. We need to acknowledge that in this place.

I have a question, Attorney-General in relation to definitions. In the section that amends the Criminal Code Act of 1924 it defines a child as meaning a person under the age of 18 years, yet when we go to the Sentencing Act Amendments, in the interpretation section, it defines child sexual offence as meaning an offence committed in relation to a person under the age of 17 years, against sections 124, 125, 125A, 125B, 125C, 125D, 126, 127, 129, 130, 130A, 133 or 185 of the Criminal Code.

Maybe the Attorney-General in her closing remarks on the second reading could explain to the House why in one section of the bill a child is defined as a person under the age of 18 years and yet the Child Sexual Offence in these amendments applies to a person under the age of 17 years.

The Greens will be supporting this bill. I commend the Attorney-General for working to bring this legislation forward and echo Ms Haddad's thanks to members of the Department of Justice who have been working on implementing the royal commission's recommendations. Thanks also to every learned professional and staff member who worked on the royal commission and listened daily to those harrowing stories of the survivors.