The report notes that
The 2012 Cummins Inquiry identified concerns regarding the handling of criminal child abuse in religious organisations in Victoria, and recommended 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.
In response to this recommendation and through the Governor in Council, the Victorian Government requested that the joint investigatory Family and Community Development Committee undertake an inquiry into these processes. Members of Parliament from multiple political parties and both Houses of Parliament comprise the Committee.
In establishing this Inquiry, the Government requested the Committee inquire into responses to criminal child abuse by all non-government organisations that interact directly with children. In addition to its primary focus on religious organisations, the Committee has considered recreational, sporting, childcare, education, community and other child-related services and activities operated by non-government organisations.It continues that -
In undertaking its Inquiry, the Committee asked some obvious but fundamental questions about the occurrence of criminal child abuse in religious and other nongovernment organisations:
• what is the extent of criminal child abuse in organisations and how has it been able to occur
• why was it not addressed long ago
• is the abuse to be properly viewed as the activity of a relatively few aberrant individuals for which they alone could be held responsible
• are there others (including the leadership of organisations involved) that contributed through organisational cultures, structures and policies, and that should be held accountable
• what should we do now to secure justice for those who have suffered and continue to do so
The Committee comments that• how do we, as a community, protect children in the future?
Evidence and information provided to the Inquiry showed that even today, leaders of some non-government organisations are reluctant to fully acknowledge that they adopted policies that gave first priority to protecting the interests of their organisation. It is beyond dispute that some trusted organisations made a deliberate choice not to follow processes for reporting and responding to allegations of criminal child abuse. There has been a substantial body of credible evidence presented to the Inquiry and ultimately concessions made by senior representatives of religious bodies, including the Catholic Church, that they had taken steps with the direct objective of concealing wrongdoing.
The Committee welcomed the commitment made by many organisations during the course of the Inquiry to actively cooperate with any new schemes that the Victorian Government establishes in response to the Inquiry’s recommendations. The CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, Mr Francis Sullivan, recently stated that the community should ‘judge us on our actions’. It is reasonable for the community to expect that organisations will honour their undertakings.It goes on to note that
The Committee heard graphic accounts that detailed horrendous and traumatic experiences of victims abused as children in the care of non-government organisations that spanned a period of decades through to more recent times.
Victims provided confronting accounts of their feelings of fear and helplessness when subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse by personnel in organisations. In circumstances of sexual abuse, many explained that as children they lacked the intellectual framework to understand their abuse. They spoke of subsequent feelings of guilt and embarrassment, and a belief that they needed to conceal what they felt was a deeply shameful secret.
Children not in the care of their families told of their experiences of criminal abuse in institutions and the feeling of losing their identities. Many absconded only to be returned and subjected to further abuse.
Sexual and other criminal offences committed against children are not a new phenomenon. The Committee challenged the assertion by some non-government organisations that child abuse had been poorly understood in the past:
• When was the commission of a sexual offence upon a child not a matter of great seriousness under our criminal law, against the principles of all of our various religious faiths, and abhorrent to our community?
• When was it not understood that children are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and that they need protection?
• How many complaints or established incidents of abuse would be necessary before it was acknowledged that a systemic problem existed within some organisations, and that their structures, processes and cultures required full investigation?
Conduct of this kind has been condemned by society for centuries. It has attracted severe penalties under our criminal law for a long time. Up until 1949 buggery of a child under the age of 14 and rape were offences that carried the death penalty. Expert knowledge of the effects of child abuse has been in the public domain since the 1960s. It is widely recognised that children subjected to criminal abuse in organisations and institutions often experience lifelong impacts that include mental health problems, addiction issues, relationship difficulties, issues with anger and difficulties with life skills, education and employment.
In addition, the consequences of criminal abuse suffered by children in organisations and institutions can be intensified due to the often high moral standing of the perpetrator. More specifically, children abused by a minister of religion or a spiritual leader have been found to develop a sense of alienation from the world. Abuse by a trusted religious figure can destroy a child’s belief that the world is a safe place and can make the world seem chaotic and unstructured. Like most people, victims want the opportunity to feel safe and to belong to their community.
The effects of criminal child abuse in organisations also extend to families. Parents explained to the Inquiry their feelings of profound guilt that they had not protected their child and had been drawn in by the grooming tactics of the perpetrator. Some victims of child abuse blamed their parents for not protecting them. Inquiry participants told the Committee of their families being fragmented and damaged as a consequence of the abuse a family member has experienced.
Some local communities, particularly religious communities, have been ruptured by the responses of organisations to criminal child abuse by their employees and other personnel. Community members spoke of a loss of trust in organisations they had previously held in high regard.
These impacts of the criminal abuse of children in the care of organisations have implications for society more broadly, including significant costs to the community in expenditure on health and education, as well as productivity loss. Adult victims of criminal child abuse by personnel in trusted organisations told the Inquiry they were seeking justice for what they often felt to be the loss of their innocence as a child. They wanted to see consequences for perpetrators—to see them removed from their position in the organisation, reported to police and potentially and validate them by providing an expression of remorse and a meaningful acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
The Committee heard, however, that many victims were not given the basic level of respect they expected and deserved. Organisations often did not assume responsibility for the harm victims had suffered, and sometimes even concealed the truth. Victims spoke of ‘unfinished business’ and resentment resulting from the inadequate response of the organisation to their disclosure of abuse.
Adding to victims’ sense of injustice was their feeling of betrayal by organisations, particularly the Catholic Church. This feeling resulted from the inconsistent approaches by organisations to victims versus offenders—that is, giving inadequate support to victims, while providing pastoral, legal and financial support to offenders. They spoke of unfulfilled promises by leaders in the organisation and the trivialising of their experiences.The Committee noted that
organisations have been handling criminal child abuse by people employed or associated with them for a long time, and the majority of the evidence from victims to the Inquiry indicated that between the 1950s and 1980s the response of specific organisations to such abuse was seriously inadequate and sometimes non-existent, particularly in religious organisations.
Reflecting on past responses to the criminal abuse of children can provide insights into how organisations have evolved in their systems and processes over time. It also assists in understanding the enduring nature of organisational culture and the extent to which organisations learn from past mistakes.
To better understand their past handling of this problem, the Committee focused particularly on the religious organisations that the majority of evidence and other information received concerned—that is, the Catholic Church in Victoria, the Salvation Army and the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.
Evidence to the Inquiry revealed that historically these organisations were often motivated by self-interest and the protection of the organisation. This resulted in serious consequences for the safety and protection of children.
In regard to the Catholic Church specifically, the Committee found that rather than being instrumental in exposing the criminal abuse of children and the extent of the problem, senior leaders of the Church:
• trivialised the problem
• contributed to abuse not being disclosed or not being responded to at all prior to the 1990s
• ensured that the Victorian community remained uninformed of the abuse
• ensured that perpetrators were not held accountable, with the tragic result being that children continued to be abused by some religious personnel when it could have been avoided.
Analysis of the Catholic Church’s past handling of this problem shows that as an organisation it had many of the internal features of an organisation at high risk of its personnel perpetrating criminal child abuse. These features include its:
• trusted role in caring for children
• culture and power • complex hierarchy and structure
• teachings and beliefs • processes for responding to allegations—including the failure to report abuse to the police
• response to alleged offenders—including the relocation and movement of offenders and failure to suspend them from their duties.
The Committee found that other organisations, particularly other religious organisations, share many of these features, which have continued to influence the responses of many organisations to allegations of criminal child abuse to the present day. The Committee considered that such features and consequent responses by organisations may help to explain why many victims remain aggrieved. Importantly, the way in which an organisation has handled reports of suspected criminal child abuse is inextricably linked to the desire of victims for justice.It also comments that -
It is well established that victims of child abuse often delay disclosing their abuse for years or decades and, in some cases, never tell anyone. The Committee heard that many victims of past child abuse by personnel in organisations disclosed their abuse to an organisation and were then directed into an internal process to ‘settle’ their matter. In the mid-1990s, the Catholic Church created two systems for responding to allegations of criminal child abuse, both of which are still currently operating—the Melbourne Response (applicable only to the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne) and Towards Healing. In addition, some other religious and non-government organisations have processes in place to respond to similar allegations of past criminal child abuse by their personnel. The Committee acknowledges that some approaches were designed by organisations to be an independent, alternative form of justice for victims, but victims told the Inquiry that they did not view them this way.
The Committee accessed many files relevant to the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, the Salvation Army and the two systems used by the Catholic Church. It also accessed internal complaint files regarding individuals within some orders and dioceses that form part of the Catholic Church in Victoria.
In its review of the existing internal systems and processes adopted by these religious organisations, the Committee identified the following features:
• They are not truly independent of the organisations.
• They contain no existing recognition of or support for secondary victims of criminal child abuse.
• Their approach to financial compensation often does not provide a clear explanation of the basis on which an organisation makes a financial payment, how the amount awarded is determined and obligations regarding confidentiality.
• They rarely encourage participants in the process to seek independent legal advice before reaching an agreement that might affect their subsequent legal rights.
• They tend to provide generic apologies that do not focus on the specific circumstances of the individual and the role played by both the perpetrator and the organisation in regard to the damage suffered by the victim.
• Only some provide counselling support, and some of those that do tend to provide inadequate counselling for a number of reasons, including limited sessions offered, counselling services not tailored to individual needs or counselling services operated internally by the organisation responsible for the abuse.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Committee identified the following areas for reform:• Some demonstrated a reluctance to implement effective disciplinary processes for offenders in their organisation, such as suspending them from their duties, removing their title or their membership with the organisation.
• Stronger requirements for organisations to take responsibility to protect children in their care including taking reasonable steps to protect them from criminal abuse.
• Improved responses to allegations of criminal child abuse in non-government organisations, including oversight of these responses by an independent body and compulsory reporting to police.
• Reforms to the criminal law to improve the potential for perpetrators and those who conceal their crimes to be prosecuted and punished, and the introduction of grooming as separate offence.
• Reforms to civil laws to make it easier for victims to sue non-government organisations.
• An independent, alternative avenue of justice for those who cannot make a claim through the civil justice system.