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George Pell and the requirement for the mandatory reporting of sex predator priests

Cardinal George Pell has faced questions about what he knew regarding allegations of sexual abuse by priests. AAP/Dean Lewins

The ABC’s 4 Corners this week exposed blatant concealment of a priest’s sexual assaults and rapes of children by the Catholic church in NSW. Admissions of guilt were made by the offender and documented in a church internal document.

The three senior priests who witnessed these admissions did not report these sex crimes to the police. They were legally obliged to do so. Such cover-up, or containment of these crimes, is also obvious in the church’s internal complaints processes.

The Archdiocese of Sydney has said it will now investigate this meeting.

The need for full mandatory reporting laws

The mandatory reporting requirements of child abuse and sex crimes vary from state to state in Australia. This confusion leads to an erratic response from those to whom the laws apply.

In Victoria and the majority of other states clergy and church personnel (unless they are a teacher or health care provider) are not required to report such matters to the police.

In NSW, not only is an individual worker or teacher who works with children, mandated to report to the police, but so is any manager or supervisor in an organisation that provides education or other services to children.

This unsatisfactory scenario is compared with a mandatory reporting bill that was introduced recently in Ireland. If passed, a failure by clergy (and others) not to disclose information to police that would “assist in prosecuting a person who commits a serious offence against a child or vulnerable adult”, would be a criminal offence. The proposed sanction for this offence is a five-year jail term.

Such uniform and sweeping changes should be adopted in Australia. A very dark cloud of shame continues to blight this country while our governments allow the powerful and wealthy Catholic church to be unaccountable for decades of cover-up of possibly thousands of serious sex crimes, including anal, vaginal and oral rape of children, by grown men.

The church must take responsibility

Though not legally obliged in much of the country to report these crimes to the police, the church displays smugness in ignoring its moral and ethical obligations by not reporting. Uniform mandatory reporting legislation would override such conceitedness and help deliver some justice to the many thousands of victims and their families.

The other string to the Catholic cover-up bow relates to their internal complaints processes, the Melbourne Response (for the Melbourne Archdiocese) and Towards Healing (a National process).

These organisations assess criminal allegations and, based on the evidence, make decisions as to whether these crimes happened or not. The church and these processes are not accountable to any civil authority and there is no external review process. These crimes are not private matters. They are matters for the state and the police.

Also, the victims, by going through these processes, experience a high degree of re-abuse and re-traumatisation. Many say they feel like they are the one on trial. They feel isolated, disempowered, frightened, interrogated, intimidated and threatened.

Unjust processes

One of the major problems with the Towards Healing process is that although the “Church shall respond to the needs of the victims in such a way as demanded by justice and compassion”, the provision of apology, counselling or compensation is entirely discretionary.

But that initial discretion is augmented such that each bishop or provincial of a religious order has absolute and individual discretion in terms of the amount of monetary compensation to be paid. There is no yardstick and no guidance as to the amount. There could be years of abuse for which one bishop might offer $12,000, while another more compassionate bishop may offer $100k for a seemingly far less serious case.

Despite this lack of consistency and the discrepancies in relation to whether compensation is paid or not, and how much is paid, there is no appeal or review available.

These same unjust processes also apply to the Melbourne Response.

In relation to the legal representation of victims going through these processes, some lawyers argue that both have a policy of lobbying victims to be unrepresented. Certainly, many go through the process completely alone and are not told or advised to get representation.

Unrepresented victims are exploited. Take an unrepresented, unemployed victim who is troubled, frightened and perhaps has alcohol or drug problems, $5000 or $10,000 may seem like a lot of money. But this person is uninformed and unfamiliar with the process. They are daunted in having to confront the church (its abuser) whilst being unable to negotiate with the church’s lawyers effectively and on an equal footing.

The need for a Royal Commission

These church processes should be shut down and replaced with a national redress scheme run by the state and paid for by the church. Victims also need legislative reform so they have the choice of litigating the church. This is currently unavailable to them due to the church’s legitimate legal defences.

With respect to the rising number of suicides and premature deaths of people who were sexually assaulted or raped by clergy, Victoria Police hold the details of at least 40 people who commited suicide and who were the victims of just two serial offenders, Father Ridsdale and Brother Robert Best.

My research is revealing more clusters of suicides including in the parish of Gardenvale in Victoria where the alleged offender escaped to England many years ago, never to be held accountable. He has now died. More suicides and premature deaths were reported in this week’s 4 Corners program as well as cases of offenders fleeing the country to escape prosecution.

The consequences of these crimes are immense, as are the social and economic costs. How are these issues to be dealt with and how will victims and their families find justice? To forge such a path, there must be a national Royal Commission and not a Parliamentary Inquiry as recently announced in Victoria. Prosecutions are needed. Only a Royal Commission can match the might of the Catholic church and effectuate accountability.

Government and church make very dangerous bed-mates. Our government must get out of that bed and show leadership and courage by calling for such an inquiry. Nothing less will do.

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