Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2019

August 29, 2019

I rise to make a contribution on and to express my support for this important piece of legislation. I think there are times in this place when we come to discuss things that create a really quite overwhelming emotional response in us. I have certainly seen that today, and I feel it myself. It is quite a pivotal piece of legislation in so many ways. I could talk to the simplicity of what it tries to do: it is amending the principal act, it is introducing mandatory reporting for priests and ministers of religion and it is removing that exemption that relates to the seal of confession, insofar as it relates to the reporting of sexual abuse of children under the age of 16.

In order to achieve that outcome the bill has got to make amendments to the Crimes Act 1958 and to the Evidence Act 2008. As a lawyer, I cannot help but sit down and go through it all and understand how it all pieces together. This legislation achieves the end that we are, at this point in time, in this Parliament, seeking to achieve. I have been around for a lot longer than many. I practised as a family lawyer for over 35 years, and 20 of those were as an independent children’s lawyer. When the mandatory reporting legislation came into place back in the early 1990s it was rolled out progressively to bring in different groups of people who were working with children, over a number of years. During the course of my years as an independent children’s lawyer the Family Law Act 1975, a federal piece of legislation, was amended to compel independent children’s lawyers to also report abuse. So at the federal level that onus was placed on us.

Many people will think that as a lawyer and in a lawyer-client relationship that might be a strange thing, because it still remains one of the exemptions to mandatory reporting, generally, among other areas of the profession. But as an independent children’s lawyer your role was different to that of solicitor-client. It was that you were there, really, appointed by the court to bring to the court’s attention issues that clearly parents would not. This is in the family law context; it is adversarial. You have a mother giving evidence to suit her case and a father to suit his case. So in those really intractable custody and child cases it was really important to have someone there to bring to the court the independent and other evidence that really would be so relevant to the case. That involved subpoenaing Department of Health and Human Services files, getting access to children’s court reports and psychiatrists reports and having children assessed, but sometimes when speaking with a child it was a case of hearing a child report to you the abuse that they had suffered. I have to say, I never had any hesitation in wanting to report that and to make sure that the perpetrator of that abuse was to be known and that that evidence would be taken into account in a case.

(Sitting suspended 1.00 pm until 2.02 pm.) Ms SHEED: Before the break I was addressing the issue of mandatory reporting and how I had been mandated as an independent children’s lawyer for many years to actually report under the provisions of the Family Law Act 1975. It has come to my notice that in all the years that we have had mandatory reporting there seems to have been no-one prosecuted for failure to report. Obviously it is a very difficult offence to approve. I have to say that that does not trouble me. I think this is an important piece of legislation. The whole concept of mandatory reporting is very much about placing an onus on people to do the right thing when it comes to being aware of child abuse. So while others criticise it for that and while I believe it is important that there are mechanisms for actually prosecuting those who fail to report in circumstances where they should, the fact that it has not occurred yet does not particularly concern me. 

The member for Bentleigh talked about the fact that a confessional that he knows about is used as a storeroom. It is my understanding that confession is no longer what we see in the movies. It is not the little dark box. It is not the gauze between two people. While that may exist in some circumstances, my understanding of confession as a sacrament now is that it is a much more open situation where people congregate within the church. They reflect on their situation, and a priest may choose to deliver what I understand is called the third rite. I do not know much about this significant change that has occurred in the church because I no longer choose to practice as a Catholic in the sense that I was brought up as a child. I think like many people there is almost a sense of betrayal in what has happened. I certainly noticed that with my mother, who passed away just earlier this year, who was a very strong woman of faith and a Catholic. All these years leading up to the disclosures about child sexual abuse and the involvement of the church and the priests in it was really I know quite devastating for her. For so many people it has created a great deal of confusion about their faith, where they go with it in the future and what it all means. I think many of us would still be happy to own up to a sense of spirituality and a desire to have some sort of understanding of that whole other world of faith, and I do nothing to in any way denigrate that. I respect other people’s rights to practise it more actively, but I also have no hesitation in supporting this legislation, which seeks to remove the exemption in relation to confession.

I have spoken to many people who are still active Catholics who also support the fact of this legislation. I was reading around this topic in preparation for this speech, and I was taken by some comments of a Dominican priest, Father Thomas Doyle, who worked with survivors of abuse by priests for over three decades. I would just like to quote what he said about the issue of child sexual abuse in the priesthood: This issue was never limited to the sexual violation of a few young boys by priests. That was both the unintended smokescreen but also the primary symptom of a much deeper and pervasive problem. The real problem of course is the manner with which the government of the institutional Catholic church and the heavily clericalized Catholic culture has responded to the reality of boys and girls, men and women from every corner of the church who come forward with chilling tales of sexual violation by clerics. … In the beginning there was no plan! The victims and their families did what they had been taught to do: rely on the 'church’ to do the right thing. I could go on, but my time is limited. I think that expresses again that sense of betrayal—the fact that such incredible stories started to come out. While that was in the United States, we have so much seen that now emerge in our own country and in our own community, and the McClellan royal commission into institutional sexual abuse has just so opened our eyes to what is happening.

I have to say that as a family lawyer and being married to a local paediatrician who did all the forensic work for northern Victoria for 30 years for the police, these things come as no surprise. I used to really worry about how you could talk to your children about these issues and how you might be able to protect them. So I suppose in our house we did talk about our work and we let them know about things that happened to people, and hopefully it created an atmosphere whereby they could feel free to talk to us—because I think part of the problem with a lot of the abuse that took place was the secrecy around it, the fear and the domination and that sense of not being able to go anywhere with it and have the feeling that you were believed. For parents of those victims who did not have their children reveal it to them it must also be an incredibly painful thing, because what could be more important to them than their children? I see this piece of legislation as just another piece in the stream of legislation that we have had coming through this place over the last number of years responding to the royal commission and the Betrayal of Trust inquiry. On that basis I support the legislation.

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