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Church transparency key to protecting children


The report of the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry is being read by many people, not only in Victoria but throughout Australia. It is a report par excellence that raises the benchmark on the work of government and community service organisations in the protection of vulnerable children.

The three authors, Philip Cummins, Dorothy Scott and Bill Scales have made a contribution to the needs of vulnerable children in Australia that demands firstly our deep gratitude to them, secondly implementation of their report by the Victorian Government, and thirdly the attention of the Commonwealth Government as well as other state governments.

A new and high benchmark has been set with a clear plan presented to achieve it. Our positive response to the report is our civic duty.

My interest was drawn to this report particularly because of my work in social inclusion and as a social worker in the 1970s in the City of Elizabeth, working in the child protection system of the South Australian government, as well as my role in the mid 1990s coordinating the developing of the Towards Healing document and the Integrity in Ministry document for the Catholic Church in Australia.

This new report is not simply about Victoria's statutory child protection system. It gives 90 recommendations and additional findings to reform the various systems that connect with vulnerable children. This is where its strength lies; it is about a total systems reform and the development of a preventative strategy and high level interventions to respond to increasing levels of need.

It understands the interconnectedness of issues such as family violence, alcohol and other substance misuse, mental health problems, intellectual disability, parental history of abuse and situational stress. And it understands that the response to these issues must also be interconnected.

Much is said of the need for a decentralised focus on services for vulnerable children, the setting up of Area Reference Committees and the co-location of services. This report is refreshing in its clarity about where roles and responsibilities for child protection and the care of vulnerable children lay.

It says 'the relationship between community service organisations and the Victorian Government should be viewed as a long term collaboration, not from a joint partnership perspective. This long term relationship should be based on a model that recognises that the Victorian Government is ultimately responsible to the Victorian people for the overall policy leadership and accountability for the structure and performance of the child, youth and family support and service system.'

In a very balanced and careful manner, the report affirms the role played by community organisations in child protection, suggests that there are some gaps in performance in some government and community agencies, and reaffirms the importance of accountability, monitoring and evaluation.

It points to the need for building the capacity of both government agencies and community organisations and the provision of more adequate funding mechanisms. My sense is that the report is indirectly offering a moment in time for some community organisations that are no longer able to cope with the increased complexity of child protection issues to now leave this field to others.

The issue of mandatory reporting always produces much debate in the community, although it should be clear to most how important it is to have a broad based mandatory reporting system. Dealing with the increased reporting that a broad based system produces is in part what this report addresses.

Of particular interest to churches in Victoria is the recommendation that would require a minister of religion and 'a person who holds an office within, is employed by, is a member of, or a volunteer of a religious or spiritual organisation that provides services to, or has regular contact with, children and young people' to report 'a reasonable suspicion' of physical or sexual abuse of a child or young person under 18. The sacrament of Confession is exempt.

Such mandatory reporting for clergy and church personnel is already in place in South Australia. It should be in place in all jurisdictions throughout Australia. I trust the churches in Victoria will embrace this recommendation. It is about a commitment to transparency. And it is about a further public commitment by all churches to child protection and minimising risk for children. Any equivocation on accepting this recommendation would be viewed with disdain by the general community.

David CappoMonsignor David Cappo AO was chair of the South Australian Social Inclusion Board 2002-2011 and deputy chairman of the Australian Social Inclusion Board 2008-2011. 

Topic tags: David Cappo, Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry



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Existing comments

Religious institutions must take this opportunity to correct their back footed and defensive style and self-righteous denial. It's absolutely essential.Otherwise they are collaborators and accessories to crime. It's too late for many , but this report will finally bring them in line with the welfare, health and education areas. Basic rights and dignity of all, things churches stand for really, and our most vulnerable have been left unprotected while the criminals have been hidden. It's very telling that we are still having this conversation. Surely we agree it is EVIL to abuse a child?

Catherine | 06 March 2012  

Whatever the price to Government,Church and Community, abuse of drugs and alcohol, combined with mental illness in conjunction must be met with action if children at risk are to have any chance in life. Bandaid Treatment does not peel off the layers of Trauma these children are subjected to. Early intervention is paramount as is ongoing councelling throughout their life. Let the children be heard and believed. Why do I write this? I've been carer of three grandchildren for 23years and have experienced the emotional, physical and spiritual pain of these children.

helen Aldersey | 06 March 2012  

Surely, we also agree that is wrong to cover up this 'evil'. It is the cover up that has done the Church the most damage, not the original abuse. Which is why the proposal to continue to exempt the sacrament of confession will still be the questioned by non-believers. How can the Church justify its defence of this position to non-believers in terms that can be understood by non-believers and does not resort to a claim for special treatment? And would it defend with equal enthusiasm a similar claim by other faith groups, or even non-faith groups to exemption?

Ginger Meggs | 06 March 2012  

Catherine is right: so long as the churches deal with child abuse within their ranks as an 'in-house' matter, they are accessories to crime. Like every other crime, child abuse is a matter for the police and the courts; it is not a prerogative of church officials to play around with.

Frank Golding | 06 March 2012  

It is well past time for all religious organisations to be removed from any contact, in the service of the state, with children and vulnerable people, since time after time the religious industry is shown to be totally irresponsible and unaccounatble. One would have thought the 'new standards' would have been age old ones, of compassion, decency, truthfulness and similar but no, all these are missing from those within the religious industry in their service of Jesus, and the massing of profits, untaxed at that, rathet like Mr. Swan's oligarchs.

Andy Fitzharry | 06 March 2012  

My understanding of the NSW legislation is that a minister whose congregation has child-related activities is mandated to report reasonable suspicion of any abuse that arises fom the child-related activities of the church, but not in their general pastoral contacts.

Judy Redman | 06 March 2012  

Of particular interest to churches, Catholic in particular, more compellingly, is the recommendation that there be a formal inquiry into church self-interested (mis)handling of child abuse cases. The fact that the Catholic Church can maintain a parallel system of internal, secretive, coercive investigation into allegations of serious criminal offences is incredible and insupportable. It is long-past time that clergy (including Bishops) should be mandated to report all allegations of criminal conduct to the police for proper, uncompromised civil investigation and prosecution. Similarly, the sacrament of confession should not be exempt. Heinous criminal abuse of children is not a convenient matter, as a long tragic and shameful history proves, of sin and forgiveness. It is a matter of earthly crime, punishment and restitution and of genuine and searingly honest institutional responsibility and reform.

Michelle Goldsmith | 06 March 2012  

Andy, while I think I understand where you are coming from, I think a blanket prohibition as you suggest is OTT, unjust, and unnecessary. In any case the problem is not limited to situations where 'religious organisations [are in] service of the state', nor is it limited to 'religious organisations'. It's about abuse of power and lack of transparency and some people, whoever or wherever they are, considering themselves to be above or outside the law.

Ginger Meggs | 06 March 2012  

It would indeed be great if the various Dioceses and States took up your suggestions David. Including Ireland, Poland, Germany and the Vatican etc. It is still perplexing to understand whose interest is served by secrecy which has so characterised our past.

Brian F Kennedy | 06 March 2012  

A fairly cold and distant piece of writing I feel.
No exemption should ever be in place where children are known to have been abused, as they have been for so many years, in what appear to be laudable institutions.
Rise to the occasion Monsignor and exempt no one from this awfulness.

GAJ | 06 March 2012  

in response to 'Ginger Meggs':
Priest-penitent exemption is far from secure in Ireland.
In USA [despite variations]. jurisprudential history provides healthy counsel:
"The First Amendment is largely cited as the jurisprudential basis[for priest-penitent exemption.] The earliest and most influential case acknowledging the priest–penitent privilege was People v. Phillips, where the Court of General Sessions of the City of New York refused to compel a priest to testify or face criminal punishment. The Court opined:

It is essential to the free exercise of a religion, that its ordinances should be administered—that its ceremonies as well as its essentials should be protected. Secrecy is of the essence of penance. The sinner will not confess, nor will the priest receive his confession, if the veil of secrecy is removed: To decide that the minister shall promulgate what he receives in confession, is to declare that there shall be no penance..
(Incidentally,Mr Ginger Meggs Sir! the successful argument in favor of the privilege was made by William Sampson, a Protestant lawyer exiled from Ireland for defending Catholics."[Wikipedia]

It is refreshing the 'exemption' is upheld in "The report of the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry"
St John Nepomucene remains the precedent in such conflict with civil law!

Father John Michael George | 06 March 2012  

1. David Cappo’s logic escapes me, as did Peter O’Callaghan QC in the November Age that he wants evidence that sexual abuse complaints are unfairly dealt with by the Pell and Towards Healing Processes before a parliament enquiry is set up. It is for Parliamentary Enquiry to weigh accusations and judge if they are sustained.
Churchmen do not see the conflict of interest with the Catholic Church Insurance Company (CCIC) setting up the process, paying its staff, limiting compensation and enforcing the strictest confidentiality agreements.

The church can barely admit its poor handling of victim survivors as seen by Bishop Peter Connor, ‘we have learnt our lessons and our processes are working well’.
The handling in Melbourne by the Cardinal, Archbishops and Bishops as highlighted in Chrissie Foster's Hell on the way to Heaven pages … shows the church cannot be trusted nor should it usurp the responsibility of the State elected legislature. Perhaps Coleridge comes closest to admit his errors. Hart laments that his three apologies have not been adequately recognised.

Cappo does not see the conflicts of interest in his preparing documents with the CCIC and then allowing members to be on the Board and Compensation Committee.

Michael Parer | 07 March 2012  

2.Members of Catholic Church Insurance Company have a statutory obligation to protect church assets and prevent payouts of millions of dollars and lead to diocesan bankruptcies as in the Americas.
All this in the face of many victims clamoring for some semblance of adequate compensation which will again be highlighted by Mairead Ashcroft's Good Friday Impact Walk at 2.00 from Federation Square to Patrick’s Cathedral on 6 April.

I welcome Cappo's urging the ACBC and episcopacy to support the recommendations of the Cummings report as he has a role in the mid 1990’s coordinating the developing for the Towards Healing document and the Integrity in Ministry document for the Catholic Church in Australia which set up the current flawed processes.

I am delighted that David Cappo’s generously supports and praises the Vic Gov’s. Report and urges the church does likewise especially Recommendation 48 that A formal investigation should be conducted into the processes by which religious organisations respond to the criminal abuse of children by religious personnel within their organisations. Such an investigation should possess the powers to compel the elicitation of witness evidence and of documentary and electronic evidence.

Michael Parer | 07 March 2012  

Well thanks for responding JMG, but you really haven't addressed my question, viz. 'How can the Church justify its defence of this position [the exemption of confession] to non-believers in terms that can be understood by non-believers and does not resort to a claim for special treatment?'

You say that 'it is essential to the free exercise of a religion, that its ordinances should be administered—that its ceremonies as well as its essentials should be protected', but what if its ceremonies included, for example, female genital mutilation? Should knowledge of that act be also exempt from mandatory reporting?

Your defence of the secrecy of the sacrament might be more credible for un-believers if the Church had a record of reporting all knowledge of abuse outside that gathered during the sacrament, but we all know that it doesn't. Instead, the history in this field is one of abuse of power, intimidation of victims, and arrogant disdain for the law of the land.

Ginger Meggs | 07 March 2012  

Is there anything worse than experiencing "disdain" (maybe contempt) in order to make individuals feel themselves to be abandoned by their community?

Claude Rigney | 07 March 2012  

It doesn't single out the depth of the spiritual damage done when a clergyman commits the crime. Or impact on children reared without the physical support and presnce of vulnerable children who have fathers clergyman. Monsignor Cappo is fully aware of their existance.

L Newington | 07 March 2012  

For the sake of balance versus media histrionics,RC Clergy sex abuse, according to ed USA scientific survey,is statistically well outranked, by abuse incidents in families and non catholic churches[not to forget rampant unchecked abuse in US schools, with union protection against subpoenaing files of state school teachers. Given 1 to 4 percent of priests convicted of child abuse,[JON JAY REPORT ETC] I personally reject the hype of global cover up by the RCC[Obviously one abuse is unforgivably heinous-but we are talking hypothetical grand scale 'global' cover up[suggested on a bigoted Australian 'catholic' db today] Global stats from where globally?: Sahara Desert? ,Monaco?, Mecca? -Kanchipuram Indian city of 300 temples and 3000 monkeys??? Libya? Falkland Islands? I assume Ginger Meggs noted the top defender of confessional seal in USA jurisprudential history was an Irish protestant attorney;unlike Ginger Meggs i am confident that educated protestants see through media hype as well as others[though liberal catholic claques are ecstatic at church's dark night of the soul Easily forgotten is the horrific advice given past bishops from lawyers and psychiatrists advising recycling abusive priests following now outdated doctrine that pedos are not recidivists. As for crimen sollicitationis being a smoking gun, even pro SNAP canonist father tom Doyle OP rejects that critique with correlated 'pontifical secret' misunderstood humbug In short issues dealing with mandatory reporting vis a vis the church needs to be approached with heightened professionalism and less kangaroo court/lynch mob genre.

Father John Michael George | 07 March 2012  

Well, thanks again JMG, but you still haven't addressed my question. And please don't presume that I am part of what you call the kangaroo court/lynch mob genre'. Instead, I suggest that you consider my response to Andy Fitzharry above. I have noted your reference to the religious affiliations of a defence lawyer, but since when were religious affiliations of lawyers relevant to a lawyer faithfully serving the best interests of his client? With a little less hype JMG, and some of the professionalism that you mention, we might be able to discuss this issue reasonably and rationally. So what about my question viz 'How can the Church justify its defence of this position [the exemption of the sacrament) to non-believers in terms that can be understood by non-believers and does not resort to a claim for special treatment?'

Ginger Meggs | 08 March 2012  

Sorry about the diction of my comment and thank you for printing it. It should have read: "Or the impact on vulnerable children, reared without the physical support and presence of their fathers, being clergymen". I might add, particularly where father/s have requested rescrips of their vows [1139] and refused, "due to the evident danger of scandal". + Albert Malcolm Ranjith October 24 2007. Both father and child, denied all rights accorded in univeral law. Minister Provincial, Paul Smith ofm.

L Newington | 08 March 2012  

One aspect of the clerical abuse of children that no one seems to raise is the undermining of Faith resulting from the developing realisation that the Material Expression of our belief in, and devotion to God, needs to be updated to accord with the new research and acquired knowledge of how that Material Expression came to be formed. Spiritual Ideals can never be adequately expressed in material forms, and need updating when circumstances change. Clergy who relied on out-dated expressions lose their way when they find them - and themselves - ineffective and irrelevant, and tend to regress to inapproriate behaviour. As Pope John XXIII tried, unsuccessfully, to do, the Materisl Expression of loving God and our neighbour needs urgent updating. It will be time and energy consuming, but will get worse if delayed. God's law of evolution is "Adapt or die."

Robert Liddy | 09 March 2012  

Mandatory reporting is a good idea. From my experience in England, it has produced the most transparency. I worked at a Catholic school attached to a monastery. There if any accusation was made against a monk, it would be reported to the abbot, who would immediately inform the police, the bishop, the Papal Nuncio, and, perhaps most importantly, all parents of all students. However, this was achieved through an internal policy, not legislation. It gave all involved the utmost confidence in the system.

Robert Turnbull | 09 March 2012  

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