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Child safety reforms still progressing slowly



Trigger warning: sexual abuse, sexual assault, child abuse.

Twelve months has passed since the national apology to survivors and victims of institutional child abuse. Such national and other official apologies for a variety of social calamities are now so common that it makes this anniversary easier to overlook because it is just one among many milestones. It also contained an important symbolic element. Nevertheless, the significance of what Senator Mathias Cormann described as a 'collective systemic national failure' demands that it not to be forgotten.

Child in red gumboots standing in a puddle. (Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty)The national apology was delivered by the Prime Minister Scott Morrison on 22 October 2018. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also addressed the guests and the substantial matters were subsequently legislated in the Senate and the House of Representatives on 25 October and 12 November 2018. It followed extensive consultation with an independent survivor-focused reference group and with the wider community between May-July 2018.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, created by the Gillard government in 2013, had reported in December 2017 and the National Redress Scheme had begun operation from 1 July 2018. The apology contained an acknowledgement, an apology and a set of aspirations, including building community awareness, strengthening systems to promote children's safety across Australia, and committing to ensuring that 'all our institutions are child-safe'.

These aspirations signal the enormity of the task because they are clearly beyond the scope of the Commonwealth government alone. Eliminating institutional child sexual abuse is a task not just for the Commonwealth government and parliament but also for state and territory governments and thousands of non-government organisations. This enormous task parallels Bob Hawke's ill-fated promise to eliminate child poverty or Kevin Rudd's undeliverable promise to eliminate homelessness.

The Commonwealth government coordinated the redress scheme, and in seeking to implement the recommendations of the royal commission promised to create a National Office for Child Safety, to coordinate a national database and to eliminate the ability of child sex offenders to travel overseas without passports. The Commonwealth parliament also created a select parliamentary committee to provide oversight.

Much relevant action took place at the state level through relevant law reform. State governments were tasked with signing up to the national redress scheme and they all eventually did so. State law reform included removing time limits on the prosecution of offenders and overturning previously signed deeds of release between offending institutions and victims. Most controversially several states undertook to demand that the Catholic Church, the main offender, remove its confessional seal where child sexual abuse was involved.

If this was not enough the national apology overlapped other controversies. The redress scheme was itself controversial as critics believed it cut across the right of survivors to sue the offending institutions at a time when those rights were being reassessed by state parliaments. The maximum level of redress, which had been pegged at $150,000 pp rather than the $200,000 recommended by the royal commission, was also strongly queried and the subsequent report of the parliamentary committee not only called for the cap to be lifted to $200,000 but for the whole scheme to be entirely revised.


"The institutional child safety issue shows how the consistently focused attention of the public, the political class and big institutions, including the Catholic Church, is difficult to maintain."


Progress was slow because institutions were given until July 2020 to voluntarily sign up to the redress scheme. Some, including about 40 Catholic institutions, have yet to do so, though almost all will meet the deadline. This was one reason for the slow progress in processing claims through the Department of Human Services. By July 2019 from 40,000 calls there had been 4100 applications, 229 payments and 85 offers made. Many more applications were expected, although thousands of victims, notably in Victoria, were choosing civil action rather than the redress scheme.

Several issues have also dogged the momentum of the national apology by taking clear air away from its concerns. Throughout 2018 Cardinal George Pell's committal hearing and then trial was a major news story, despite a media blackout. The announcement of his conviction, unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court and now his appeal to the High Court has run throughout the 12 months since the apology. The Pell case was itself expected to encourage more applications to the redress scheme and more civil cases.

The period has also been interrupted by the May 2019 federal election campaign as well as the intensely divisive debate about freedom of religion. This debate has not just taken public attention way from other church-state issues, but it has attracted huge amounts of the energy and resources of some major non-government institutions like the Catholic Church. So too have public debates about law reform regarding abortion and euthanasia.

The church itself was already committed to its own program of making its institutions child safe through Catholic Professional Standards Ltd (CPSL), funded by the ACBC and Catholic Religious Australia, which operates as an independent body with its own board at arms-length from the official church. CPSL has the responsibility of holding all Catholic institutions, including schools, welfare agencies and aged care bodies but particularly parishes, dioceses, orders and congregations, to account for maintaining child safe systems.

This task has itself been controversial, and therefore subject to review, at a time when the church is suffering severe financial pressures. The whole church, just one element of the massive non-government and government institutional structure, is striving to make Australia child-safe, in the aspirational words of the Prime Minister, by allocating significant resources.

Over much the same period the Catholic Church has invested considerable time and energy in preparations for the Plenary Council 2020. This effort is not unrelated to the aspirations of the Prime Minister's national apology as it raises questions about the continuing general awareness, priorities, and disposition of resources of the largest church community in Australia. The royal commission concluded that child safety, in all its organisational ramifications, raised questions of culture and governance for the church. If the PC2020 doesn't take such issues seriously then it will be one indicator that the momentum around the official national apology has slowed.

Measurement of progress following any national apology is fraught with difficulty. The ultimate measures in the matter of national child safety in institutions are that the issue is kept alive in the minds of the public and that the mechanisms in place are effective and efficient as well as redressing as far as possible the enormous harm done to survivors and victims.

At the time of the national apology, despite a lengthy royal commission, so much was still unresolved for survivors and victims. The experience of the past 12 months shows that it is still too early to judge progress on a matter which may take decades to resolve. Not only are there inherent difficulties to address, but the institutional child safety issue shows how the consistently focused attention of the public, the political class and big institutions, including the Catholic Church, is difficult to maintain.


For confidential counselling and support call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800respect.org.au



John Warhurst John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image credit: Catherine Falls Commercial / Getty

Topic tags: John Warhurst, clergy sex abuse, Plenary Council 2020, Scott Morrison, Catholic Church, George Pell



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Existing comments

With John Warhurst, I hope that child safety receives due attention in PC2020, especially in the context of the spiritual renewal necessary for any proposed changes in governance and structure in the Catholic Church. I hope, too, that child safety considerations will include protection from ideologically driven programmes on sexuality that oppose Catholic teaching, and doomsday visions of life presented as environmental concern.

John RD | 16 October 2019  

The Church as a whole is still in denial.And therein has always lain the problem. Catholic high schools attended by my children and more recently my grandchildren have recently experienced cases of child sexual abuse, in one case by a teacher and in another by other students.In the first case the teacher is now serving a prison sentence, in the second two senior and highly respected members of staff will be on trial early next year for failure to report.And yet we have a well established and highly commended child protection program. No one is joining the dots.I'm honestly not sure what the picture would look like if we did. The open forum that we are all hoping the Plenary Council will provide is perhaps our last hope of either seeing the bigger picture or at the very least admitting that we still can't clearly see the bigger picture. Let's at least keep asking the question and admit we are not going to find the answer at the back of the book even in the teacher's edition.

Margaret | 16 October 2019  

John Warhurst raises the central question of whether PC2020/21 will take questions of culture and governance for the church seriously. The failure of most bishops to engage with the people of their dioceses through diocesan synods or assembles in preparing for the Council does not augur well in that regard, but is consistent with their long established autocratic, unaccountable and exclusive decision-making practices - business as usual. If bishops fail in basic governance processes such as this, what chance is there of them adopting better governance practices for the Church at the Plenary Council?

Peter Johnstone | 16 October 2019  

While I share Peter Johnstone's anxieties about how the Bishops respond to the various assembly outcomes in each diocese, I think John Warhurst's article provides a timely warning that child-safety should take precedence above all else. I thought it dismal that it didn't feature at all in the two discernment processes in which I participated at the Brisbane Archdiocesan Assembly. While that is not to say that other discernment groups didn't consider this issue, the reputation of the Australian Catholic Church depends on it featuring in the consciousness of the faithful at this time. As John infers, memories can be short as other issues jostle for attention. My fear is that in the general clamour to get everything attended to, nothing thorough will be done. My reason for this? In the general chit-chat between sessions, I raised the child abuse question twice. "Oh, that! We've dealt with it already, haven't we," stated a Catholic education aficionado in one. In the second, a fellow assembly participant, referring to his former parish priest, who broke the law by accessing child pornography, remarked: "He's a fine man and a recognised scholar, who had the misfortune to be caught when he was only looking."

Michael Furtado | 17 October 2019  

As a Catholic teacher engaged in the process of registration renewal, I think that the careful measures taken in Catholic education under the guidance of bishops and in collaboration with the State in order to ensure the protection of children deserve recognition. Both internal and external checks are now in place, which might help allay the understandable concerns of those who wish to see the child safety issue as the main priority of the Pastoral Council. This said, I believe these measures insufficient without due attention to spiritual renewal which lies at the heart of the Church's identity and mission.

John RD | 18 October 2019  

The lack of public endorsement by Brisbane Archbishop, Mark Coleridge to support proposed new Queensland legislation requiring clergy to be mandatory child abuse reporters, is staggering. Today, Queensland is the only state to have no mandatory child abuse reporting laws for clergy. As most clergy come from overseas on religious workers visas, new laws must require background checks and a publically accessible clergy register (as usual requirements for most professions.

PBoylan | 21 October 2019  

Until such time as there is in place an equivalent of S.316A of the NSW Crimes Act in Queensland, Bishops & priests are not obliged under Queensland law to report any sexual abuse to police. Parents with children in Catholic Schools require laws not church policies.

Protect all children | 21 October 2019  

Despite our hubris that we're so sophisticated and adaptable to change, we are not really too clever at interpretation of what needs to change to effect a definite, safe result. We accept risk on a daily basis often because that's just the way things have always been. An example of this is how we interpret a two way street...we grew up with this roadway being the norm and drive on them daily, then we are deplored when there's a head on accident. The statistics for an undesirable outcome are proved but we tinker around the edges with speed limits and signage without removing the real problem. Similarly, we are confronted with another identified risk management situation and the opportunity to effect real change... but the seeming unwillingness of the parties to implement other than administrative measures. Apologies for chronic institutional failings wear a bit thin when they're repeated; its easier to predict the next national apology than stomach the explanation.

Ray | 02 November 2019  

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