News

PM announces National Apology to abuse victims and survivors, and new Office for Child Safety

Institutions told to explain if they don't accept Royal Commission recommendations.

Mr Turnbull said: "The survivors have told their stories, many of them for the first time. They have been heard and they have been believed -- many of them for the first and only time. We must honour them, honour their testimony. Ensure that out of their suffering, out of that abuse, comes lasting reform so what they suffered, the wrongs that were inflicted on them, can never happen again."

By Mark Brolly

June 14 2018 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced that a National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse will be made in Canberra on 22 October, with a new National Office for Child Safety to be established in July.

Mr Turnbull said Western Australia had given a firm commitment to join the National Redress Scheme in the next few weeks, meaning all states and territories had now agreed to do so. The Government estimates that the Scheme will now cover about 93 per cent of survivors.

The Anglican Church and other non-government institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church, Uniting Church, Salvation Army, YMCA and Scouts have already announced that they will join the Scheme.

The PM made the announcements on 13 June as he, Attorney-General Christian Porter and Social Services Minister Dan Tehan announced the Government’s response to the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which completed its work last December, five years after it was established.

“Now that we've uncovered the shocking truth, we must do everything in our power to honour the bravery of the thousands of people who came forward,” Mr Turnbull said. “We've already acted on many of the recommendations of the Commission, but today we accept or accept in principle 104 of the remaining 122 recommendations directed wholly or in part to the Australian Government. The additional 18 recommendations have been noted as they require further consideration. We've not rejected any of the Royal Commission's recommendations.

“Our expectation is that non-government institutions will respond to each of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, indicating what action they will take in response to them and will report on their implementation of relevant recommendations annually in December, along with all governments. Where institutions decide not to accept the Royal Commission’s recommendations, they should state so and why.”

Mr Turnbull described the National Apology as an important step to help the healing process.

“I will deliver a national apology to the survivors, victims and families of institutional child sexual abuse on the 22nd of October here in Canberra. The apology will coincide with National Children's Week, a date chosen to bring together our acknowledgement of the past and our commitment to the future wellbeing and safety of children in Australia.”

He said the National Office for Child Safety would be set up within the Department of Social Services and work across government and sectors to develop and implement policies and strategies to enhance children’s safety and prevent future harm.

Redress was not compensation, the PM said.

“However, it does acknowledge the hurt and harm survivors suffered, and it will ensure institutions take responsibility for the abuse that occurred on their watch by the people that worked for them.

“The survivors have told their stories, many of them for the first time. They have been heard and they have been believed – many of them for the first and only time. We must honour them, honour their testimony. Ensure that out of their suffering, out of that abuse, comes lasting reform so what they suffered, the wrongs that were inflicted on them, can never happen again.”

Asked, as a Catholic, what he would say to the Catholic Church about the seal of the confessional, Mr Turnbull replied: “The safety of children should always be put first. The details of the harmonisation of evidence laws I'll leave to the Attorney-General and his counterparts, but children's safety should always be put first.

“We know, thanks to the Royal Commissioners’ work, that in far, far too many cases, it wasn't.”

Attorney-General Porter then added: “The seal of the confessional has been absolute in doctrinal terms. It has never been absolute in legal terms in Australia.

“There is a very substantial exemption to the privilege or protection that sits around the confessional. What we will be talking about at the end of the day is a modification to the existing exemption.

“I might add that this seems to fascinate because of all its technical and intercepting legal and theological principles. That provision, section 127 of the Evidence Act, which has been in place since 1995, my Department tells me they cannot find a case in which it's been activated and used.”

Journalist: “But you might find a circumstance though under this, where a Catholic priest – because the seal of the confessional for them would be absolute – refuses to give evidence?”

Mr Porter: “Look, of course that situation could arise. But as my Department advises me, that section has never actually been the subject of judicial decision-making in Australia.”

Journalist: “But it might?”

Mr Porter: “Of course.”

The President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, welcomed the Government’s response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations, but said the Church did not view the seal of confession as incompatible with maintaining child safety.

“The Church wants measures that will genuinely make environments safer for children,” he said. “There has been no compelling evidence to suggest that legal abolition of the seal of confession will help in that regard.

“Protecting children and upholding the integrity of Catholic sacraments are not mutually exclusive and the Church wants to continue to work with government to ensure both can be achieved and maintained.”

Last September at its meeting in Maroochydore, Queensland, the Anglican Church’s national parliament, General Synod, passed two Canons (laws) about Confession – one revising legislation adopted at the previous General Synod in Adelaide in 2014 and the other concerning vulnerable persons – and formally endorsed a motion urging State and Territory governments “as a matter of urgency” to enact legislation for a national system for child protection that provided for the mandatory reporting of child abuse by persons, including ministers of religion, to the police and the government child protection authorities.

The following month, Melbourne Synod adopted General Synod’s legislation exempting grave offences involving child abuse from the absolute confidentiality of the confessional after one of the liveliest debates of its five-day meeting at St Paul’s Cathedral (see http://tma.melbourneanglican.org.au/news/Exemption-confessional-seal-debate-241017).