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Child abuse royal commission calls for dozens of law changes including new confession rules

August 14, 2017 · 

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Clergy who fail to report information about child sexual abuse heard during confession would face criminal charges under a series of sweeping changes to the criminal justice system recommended in a new report.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has detailed 85 proposed changes to the law in a report released today.

Under the proposed changes, failure to report child sexual abuse in institutions would be made a criminal offence.

There should also be “no excuse, protection nor privilege” for priests who fail to alert police because the information was received in confession, the report said.

It said the commission had heard evidence of multiple cases where abuse was disclosed in confession, both by victims and perpetrators.

“We are satisfied that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt,” the report said.

“We heard evidence that perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.

“We have concluded that the importance of protecting children from child sexual abuse means that there should be no exemption from the failure to report offence for clergy in relation to information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession.”

The royal commission also called for greater use of evidence by multiple victims in relation to a single perpetrator, arguing the exclusion of this evidence in the past has led to “unwarranted acquittals”.

People who fail to protect a child from a substantial risk of sexual abuse would also be liable to prosecution under the recommendations.

The offence would be committed if the person fails to report to police in circumstances where they know, suspect, or should have suspected an adult associated with the institution was sexually abusing or had sexually abused a child, the report said.

There would also be a lower threshold for when reporting is required under the proposed changes.

The 85 recommendations also include:

changes to police responses, such as improvements to investigative interviewing techniques

measures to improve “courtroom experiences” for victims, such as by pre-recording evidence, including in cross-examinations

the removal of “good character” as a mitigating factor in sentencing “where that good character facilitated the offending”

requiring sentences to be set in line with current sentencing standards instead of those in place at the time of offending, subject to the maximum sentence that applied at the time of the offence

extending grooming offences to cover when an offender builds trust with a parent or carer to get access to a child

“The criminal justice system is often seen as not being effective in responding to crimes of sexual violence, including child sexual abuse,” the report said.

Priests may face tough choice: report

The Catholic Church’s Trust Justice and Healing Council had made a submission to the commission, arguing that religious confession should remain a privileged communication under Australian law.

It said requiring clergy to disclose the contents of confession would interfere with a person’s private communication with God, and the Catholic Church in Australia did not have the power to interfere with the “seal of confession”.

In its report, the royal commission said it made recommendations to state and territory governments, not the church.

“We acknowledge that if this recommendation is implemented then clergy hearing confession may have to decide between complying with the civil law obligation to report and complying with a duty in their role as a confessor,” the commission’s report said.

Victims’ groups also raised concerns about the creation of a “failure to report” offence, which would also apply when a person knew, suspected or “should have suspected” that child sexual abuse was occurring.

The People With Disability Australia group stressed the need for victims to consent, and told the royal commission there were good reasons survivors did not wish to have crimes against them reported.

The group said it could affect whether or not victims disclosed their abuse, if they knew matters would have to be reported to police.

But the Care Leavers Australasia Network submitted that the offence was a useful tool to encourage reporting.

“Unfortunately, sometimes the only way to ensure that the right thing is done is through the threat of a penalty or punishment,” the group said.

Other groups also raised concerns that in a family violence situation, a parent may be unable to report abuse, and should not be charged for failing to report.

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