By Barney Zwartz and Jane Lee
The state government’s eagerly awaited report on clergy child sex abuse recommends sweeping changes to laws behind which the Catholic Church has sheltered, and accused its leaders of trivialising the problem as a ‘‘short-term embarrassment’’.
Launching the report in State Parliament, inquiry chairwoman Georgie Crozier spoke of ‘‘a betrayal beyond comprehension’’ and children suffering ‘‘unimaginable harm’’.
A sliding morality has emerged in the Catholic Church.
She said the inquiry had referred 135 previously unreported claims of child sex abuse to the police.
The report into how the churches handled clergy sexual abuse wants to establish a new crime for people in authority knowingly to put a child a risk, and to make it a crime not to report suspected child abuse or to leave a child at risk. The recommendation does not extend to what priests hear in the confessional.
Grooming a child or parents should be a crime, child abuse should be excluded from the statute of limitations, and the present church systems of dealing with victims in-house should be replaced by an independent government-monitored authority, suggests the report, Betrayal of Trust.
Committee member Andrea Coote said the Catholic Church had minimised and trivialised the problem, kept the community in ignorance, and ensured that perpetrators were not held accountable, so that children continued to be abused.
‘‘With the notable exception of Father Kevin Dillon [the Geelong priest who gave evidence], we found that today’s church leaders view the current question of abuse of children as a ‘short-term embarrassment’ which should be handled as quickly as possible to cause the least damage to the church’s standing. They do not see the problems as raising questions about the church’s own culture,’’ she said.
The betrayal of trust at a number of levels of the church hierarchy was in such contrast to the religion’s stated values that many Catholics found the betrayal almost impossible to acknowledge, Ms Coote said.
The church had developed a ‘‘sliding morality’’, compartmentalising the issues to avoid the ‘‘obvious moral conflicts’’. The church’s own submission barely mentioned past church policies, and was expressed mainly in the present tense, she said.
Ms Crozier said the inquiry had been significant and historic, begun last year at a time when no other government within Australia was prepared to take on these confronting issues.
Besides recommending new criminal laws, the report suggests way to make it easier for victims to seek justice. These include ensuring organisations are held accountable and vicariously liable, and that any organisation receiving government funding or tax exemptions are incorporated and insured. This would eliminate the so-called Ellis defence, by which the church successfully argued it was not an entity that could be sued.
It recommends strengthening prevention systems such as the working with children checks, and increasing scrutiny and monitoring of organisations.
Ms Crozier said children were betrayed by trusted figures in organisations of high standing, and suffered unimaginable harm. ‘‘Parents experienced a betrayal beyond comprehension, and the community was betrayed by the failure of organisations to protect children in their care.’’
Premier Denis Napthine said the abuse detailed in the report was “absolutely appalling” and said religious involved should hang their heads in shame.
Dr Napthine said the government would immediately begin drafting legislation that reflected the committee’s recommendations including:
– A new criminal offence for “grooming” a child
– a new child endangerment offence
– removing statute of limitations on offences
– making it a crime to conceal child abuse offences
Dr Napthine was raised in a Catholic household and attended a Catholic school.
“I can’t claim to be a practising Catholic at the moment, but let me say I’m ashamed and embarrassed by the actions of the Catholic Church,’’ Dr Napthine said,
“The leaders of the Catholic Church who were involved some of these actions ought to absolutely hang their heads in shame, and that’s the least of what they should do.’’
He called on all institutions and organisations to accept the recommendations and urged them to “read every word of this report.”
On establishing a victim’s of crime fund for abuse victims, Dr Napthine said the government would thoroughly investigate all recommendations.
Dr Napthine praised the man he replaced, Ted Baillieu, for putting systemic child abuse on the national agenda, saying the Victorian inquiry helped set up the Royal Commission.
Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart said child abuse was not a short-term embarrassment, and although it could still do better the church had made good progress.
He supported the key recommendations, but declined to endorse any in particular, saying they were complex legal matters. He said the report gave an opportunity for the church and other groups to ‘‘move forward together’’.
Archbishop Hart said the church had cooperated with the inquiry, with more than 20 Catholic representatives giving evidence. Next would come a time of exploration as the government considered its response, and the church would contribute constructively.
Committee members were greeted warmly when they left the chamber.
Chrissie and Anthony Foster, whose daughters were serially abused at primary school by paedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell, hugged Ms Crozier and David O’Brien simultaneously.
Stephen Woods, who was sexually assaulted by convicted paedophile Christian Brother Robert Best said: ‘‘It’s just the start, another step in the change in society… so that parliamentarians and victims will now be able to potentially change one corner of society.’’
Mr Woods, who was abused when he was a student at a Christian Brothers school, said that the report gave victims and the community ‘‘power and impetus to change’’.
He said he was not surprised by the strong recommendations Ms Crozier had earlier flagged, saying that there was a ‘‘palpable change in the mood and tone’’ of the committee members during the inquiry when victims began to give evidence.
Mr Woods gave Andrea Coote a kiss on the cheek when she entered the lobby area and smiled: “Thank you, darling Andrea.”
Many of the victims and victim advocates who gave evidence and sat in Parliament throughout the state inquiry stayed till the end, including Good Faith & Associates’ Helen Last, lawyers Judy Courtin and Angela Sdrinis and Care Leavers Australia Network executive director Leonie Sheedy.
In Parliament’s lower house MPs from all sides showed raw emotion when discussing the inquiry, with sympathetic handshakes and hugs crossing party lines.
Inquiry members, including Liberal Nick Wakeling and Labor’s Bronwyn Halfpenny, choked back tears as they detailed the work of the committee and the harrowing stories they heard.
Mr Wakeling said hearing the evidence had taken its toll on some and paid tribute to all those who participated.
MPs wiped back tears as the listened to their colleagues talk about the inquiry.
Nationals MP Tim Bull said the greatest betrayal of trust was the rape of children.
Labor’s Sharon Knight said the inquiry was “beyond politics” and praised the bipartisan work of the committee.
With Richard Willingham