Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Victoria's path to child sex abuse prosecution

  • 14 November 2013

Will the recommendations of Victoria's parliamentary inquiry into the sexual abuse of children in non-government institutions be overshadowed by the proceedings of the Royal Commission that is now under way? Probably, but it doesn't matter. The first thing to be said about the Victorian inquiry, which tabled its report, Betrayal of Trust, in the state's parliament today (13 November 2013), is that the MPs have done a far better job than many people — including this writer — had expected them to do in the relatively short time allotted to them, and without the resources available to the commission.

The inquiry's recommendations are, with one important exception, carefully considered responses to the evidence the bipartisan committee received from 405 written submissions and in more than 160 hearings. Apart from the exception, of which more later, the Napthine Government should implement these recommendations and, if they are later subsumed under all-state legislation recommended by the Royal Commission, that will not render them pointless. They will have been a model and a guide in dealing with a problem that all forms of institutionalised authority — not only the churches — have preferred to avoid dealing with openly for far too long.

That is not to say, of course, that the sexual abuse of children has ever been condoned, let alone treated as less than a serious offence under criminal law. As the inquiry's report notes, buggery of children under 14 and rape were capital crimes until 1949. But that official abhorrence makes all the more lamentable the fact that until the early 1990s abuse happened extensively in non-government institutions, especially the churches, and that perpetrators were typically redeployed rather than being suspended from their duties and the police notified.

And the biggest adherents to this practice of routine concealment were Catholic bishops and major superiors, just as Catholic priests and religious were proportionately far more numerous among the ranks of perpetrators than were those who worked in other non-government institutions. The figure has been cited before but is worth repeating: Patrick Parkinson, professor of law at the University of Sydney and formerly a consultant to Towards Healing, the Church's national pastoral response to victims of clerical sexual abuse, estimated in his evidence to the inquiry that Catholic clerics and religious outnumbered other institutional perpetrators by six to one.

If the Catholic Church is so frequently mentioned in Betrayal of Trust, therefore, Catholics and their clerical leaders