Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 – Second Reading Debate

You can watch the video here

I stand today to support the Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2019. I wish to thank the Minister for Child Protection and the Attorney-General, their offices and the relevant government departments for the work that has gone into the preparation of this bill. I was moved by the Attorney-General’s speech today. Victoria is so fortunate to have a compassionate and empathetic Attorney-General. I would also like to commend the member for Frankston for his heartfelt and personal contribution to the debate today as well as everyone else who has spoken. I wish to acknowledge Chrissie Foster and other campaigners and supporters who are here today. Chrissie is a well-known advocate for children abused by priests and has great courage and strength. I wish to thank her for her leadership and advocacy on this issue.

This bill reflects the government’s commitment to making the safety and protection of children the paramount consideration. Today I will be addressing the importance of mandatory reporting to child protection authorities of child abuse or harm disclosed during confessions as well as changes to prohibit individuals who have been charged, convicted or found guilty of the most serious offences from applying to VCAT for a working with children check. There are a number of other important amendments in this bill, including on past time limitations to be set aside for unjust and inadequate settlements and for Aboriginal children in Aboriginal care, which I also support.

If we are to protect our children, we as a community need to shift long-held views. That is why these amendments prioritise the child’s right to protection over confidentiality to protect the perpetrator. The wellbeing of kids must come first. I strongly believe that this is appropriate and in line with community standards, community values and community expectations. As a parent and former schoolteacher, I strongly believe that child safety is a whole-community responsibility. Child abuse is unacceptable. All organisations must have child safety at the forefront of their thinking and embedded in their organisational culture. We cannot ignore the evidence that some people in religious ministries have been in a position to take action to protect children but have failed to do so. This bill is about requiring churches and religious groups to step up and to protect children.

Coming from Ballarat and representing the electorate of Wendouree, which covers central Ballarat and the surrounding suburbs, this change is much needed and overdue. Sadly, Ballarat is known around the world because there have been so many cases of systemic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and Christian Brothers in our diocese. As a Catholic I am proud to support this bill because we must ensure that the sexual abuse that was revealed by the royal commission is never allowed to happen again.

I wish to take the opportunity to recognise former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard for her strong leadership in establishing the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2013. It was on 15 December 2017 that the royal commission handed down its final report. The findings were damning for many institutions across Australia, particularly the Catholic Church. The report found that 139 people made a claim of child sexual abuse to the diocese of Ballarat between 1980 and 2015. There were 21 alleged perpetrators identified in these claims—139 people, 21 perpetrators. Of the 21 alleged and convicted perpetrators, 17 were priests. This data does not include the decades before, when we know child sex abuse was rife in Ballarat and widespread across western Victorian parishes due to well-organised cover-ups and offending priests being transferred from one community to another, where they continued to offend and destroy the lives of innocent children.

As someone who grew up in the Ballarat diocese, this can only be described as a betrayal of trust to our community. The high number of reports of child sex abuse by priests between 1980 and 2015 is alarming and very close to home for me. This time overlaps when I was educated at a local parish school in Ballarat and when my brothers were altar boys and attended St Patrick’s College. We must learn from the horrific lived experience of survivors of sexual abuse and say: ‘Never again’.

I wish to thank the brave survivors and their families for reliving their trauma to make public their heinous experiences in the hope that the perpetrators can be brought to justice and that we can protect future generations of children from abuse. I also want to sincerely acknowledge the victims who are no longer with us, many in my community who have taken their own lives as a direct consequence of the sexual abuse they experienced as children. I am so sorry that so many people who lived in Ballarat and across Victoria were forced to live with the hurt and pain of not being believed, of not being supported and of not receiving the justice they deserved. As a society we let them down.

On the morning of Monday, 22 October 2018, a national apology was delivered to all victims and survivors of institutional child abuse at Parliament House in Canberra, and I joined with the Premier and survivors in Ballarat to hear that apology. On that day the Premier stated:

The betrayal that occurred here will never be forgotten. Now it’s time for us to do what’s right—through action and funding and support—for all those who were wronged.

We must do everything we can to protect children from abuse. We cannot accept that there is ever a reason or an excuse for anyone who works with children and young people not to report it if they believe a child is being harmed.

I am supporting this bill today to strengthen protections for children by improving the reporting and disclosure of child abuse. These changes are a very logical step to further strengthen the protection of Victorian children. For those who may not know, mandatory reporting refers to the legal requirement of certain professions to report a reasonable belief of child physical or sexual abuse to child protection authorities. Currently teachers, school principals, doctors, nurses, midwives and police officers who believe that a child is being physically or sexually abused are required to report this to authorities. I know as a former teacher that failing to do so is a criminal offence. However, under current laws priests and people in religious ministry are exempt from mandatory reporting laws. I believe that it is right and just that people who hold these positions of authority and responsibility in our state have the same requirement to report and protect at-risk and abused children. I know that mandatory reporters can sometimes feel uncertain about their obligations, but religious and faith groups can be assured that the information and implementation support to assist their understanding of and support compliance with this legislation will be available.

So why are we doing this? We are doing this because we made a commitment that we would to the people of Victoria, and we are fulfilling that commitment to our communities. There will be no loopholes or excuses for anyone who works with children and young people who are being abused not to report it. I have written far too much, and I do not have enough time to talk all about this. I am also proud that we are doing this to let the survivors know that we have heard them. For too long victims and survivors of abuse have not been heard. We are changing that. We are introducing these changes to ensure that survivors of institutional child sex abuse know that we have listened to their words and we believe them. We cannot take back the abhorrent crimes that have occurred and what has happened to you, but we want to enshrine in law protections to stop what happened to you from happening to anyone else.

I would like to also thank Ballarat CASA—Centre Against Sexual Assault—psychologists, counsellors, social workers, social organisations and community organisations that support survivors of sexual abuse in my community. I am proud to support this bill, which includes people in religious ministries as mandatory reporters without exemption for religious confessions and removes the religious confessions exemption from the failure to disclose. In closing, protecting children must come first. The Andrews Labor government stands with you. I commend this bill to the house.