CHILDREN LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2019
I want to begin my contribution by acknowledging those individuals and organisations who have led us on a very important journey in this state and in this nation. We would not have had a Betrayal of Trust inquiry and we would not have had a federal Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse but for the courage of many of the individuals who are here in this chamber today. I want to particularly acknowledge Chrissie Foster and the late Anthony Foster. I want to acknowledge Leonie Sheedy and other members of the Care Leavers Australia Network. You mean a great deal to me. You are absolutely amazing people. To all the victim survivors who are here with us today, thank you so much for your courage and for shining a light on a really dark, dark chapter in this nation’s history—a chapter that none of us really wanted to confront. It was very confronting to hear about people of responsibility abusing children, and yet you had the courage to speak about this and to insist that legislators and other people in a position of authority take notice.
I want to express my deep gratitude to all of you for your courage. It is also important that I acknowledge that there are many people who are no longer with us, for whom there was a great toll. Everybody who was abused, every child who was abused, suffered a great toll. For some the toll was so great they took their own lives, they took drugs, they became alcoholics, they suffered mental health issues—their lives were destroyed. We have to acknowledge that children’s lives were destroyed because of the abuse they suffered. We are really standing on the shoulders of giants. You are the giants. You are the people who have shone a light on this dark, dark chapter. You have forced so many reforms—child safe standards, reportable conduct, duty of care for institutions, removal of the Ellis defence, incorporation of churches, working with children checks for religious ministers—and now what is in my view the next logical step is making sure that people who are religious leaders become mandatory reporters and that we remove the exemption that applies to confessions as well. I have to say that, as someone who has had the great privilege to work with victim survivors in my previous role as the Minister for Families and Children, I just see this as an absolute no-brainer. It defies comprehension as far as I am concerned that anyone—anyone—could object to these extensions to these laws. I have to say that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has played such an important role in giving voice to the victims and seeking to achieve justice for those victim survivors. We heard evidence of the extent, the sheer magnitude, which just defies belief, of the abuse of children in many institutions, not just in out-of-home care—and I have to accept the state’s responsibility for that—and in orphanages but also in our schools and many settings and of course in our religious institutions as well. The thing that is the most galling for the Australian public is that there was a culture of cover-ups—it is not only that this abuse occurred but that there were systemic cover-ups. The culture of cover-ups that occurred for so long is very, very hard for all of us to accept. I was intrigued to read recently—I am not a Catholic, so I was not familiar with this history—that 150 years ago Australia’s first Catholic saint, Mary MacKillop, was in fact banished for disclosing child sexual abuse. Let us go forward in history. One hundred and fifty years later Australia’s first Catholic cardinal is convicted for child sexual abuse. Now, how can this organisation and its leaders not accept that they have a very serious cultural problem here? How can they convince parents sending their children off to Catholic schools every day that they will be safe if they are saying that they will defy this law once it is passed and will refuse to disclose crimes admitted to them in confession? I have to say, I am absolutely shocked by that. I am shocked that Archbishop Comensoli, after this royal commission and his cardinal going to jail, would come out and say he will defy the law. I think it speaks of an organisation and a Catholic leader in this state who are tone deaf—he is completely tone deaf. He is completely out of touch, I believe, with his parishioners as well.
Now, I am not a Catholic but I have spoken to many Catholics about this issue who are absolutely outraged by the archbishop’s position on this issue. I certainly hope that he will reflect on this and that he will change his position. I am not a theologian. I am not an expert in canon law. But I have to say that I am sure that the Australian public agrees that the protection of children has to trump any religious institution’s traditions. And they are just traditions. During the course of the debate there was a question posed: what would Jesus say? What would Jesus do? Well, there is one verse in the Bible that I will quote from, because these are the words of Jesus: If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. That is from Matthew 18:6. Jesus was very clear—there is no reference to confessional seal in the Bible. Jesus was all about forgiveness, but he was categorical in saying that someone should be drowned in the depths of the sea for laying a finger on a child. It is very clear in my mind that the church is out of touch not just with biblical teaching but also, I think, with its parishioners, and I believe they are completely out of touch with the views of the Australian public on this issue. I think today is an important next step in the chapter of protecting Victoria’s children. I certainly hope that other parliaments across Australia also take action to remove the exemption as it relates to the confessional seal. I think it is important that parents are reassured that if a crime is disclosed in the confessional it will be disclosed to authorities. It will not be covered up. We are implementing the recommendations of the royal commission. We had evidence at the royal commission of priests going to confession, confessing to child sexual abuse crimes and then being absolved of their sins. They felt they had been absolved, so off they go. The next day they commit new crimes. And they were also moved around from one parish to the other. No action was taken. I think that is outrageous. It is outrageous that that occurred in this country. It is outrageous that the current leadership of the Catholic Church in this state failed to acknowledge that history. I think if anything has been learned from this royal commission it is that these laws are well overdue, and I would certainly encourage the archbishop to reconsider his view, to embrace this law and to reassure his parishioners and all those families who send their kids through our Catholic school system that they are taking the royal commission recommendations seriously and making every effort to ensure that this pattern of abuse does not happen again. We all need to commit ourselves to ensuring that we do everything possible to protect children. That is what this law is about. I thank members for indicating their support, and I thank the victim survivors for their patience. I thank them for their patience and for their courage, and we need to make sure that we get these laws on the statute book and that we work to ensure that this never happens again. Motion agreed to. Read second time. Committed.