The Victorian Parliament’s Betrayal of Trust report, published last week as the result of a state parliamentary inquiry into child sex abuse, is an excellent piece of work — detailed, balanced, thoughtful and well-written. Indeed, it is far better than anyone could have anticipated. And the federal Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse would do well to pay attention.

The 18-month inquiry received 450 submissions and 92 supplementary submissions, and it held 106 public hearings, 56 in camera.

The Betrayal of Trust report makes 15 recommendations, including making it a crime for anyone to conceal or fail to report serious child abuse, creating a new offence of “endagerment” enabling persons in authority to be charged over relocating offenders and defining a new offence of “grooming” children for sex.

Describing current avenues of redress for victims as “grossly inadequate”, the report also recommends the establishment of an independent statutory authority to oversee abuse claims, ending the statute of limitations on commencement of civil litigation, creation of alternative avenues to litigation, and legal amendments that would force churches to be incorporated so they can be sued for damages.

Victims’ advocacy groups say this is everything they had been hoping for.

Unlike the national royal commission, the Victorian inquiry did not have investigative powers. But 135 previously unreported allegations have been referred to Victoria Police Task Force SANO.

In relation to testing of evidence, the committee says it was “alert to the potential for exaggeration, distortion of perception or inaccurate recollection” and took great care that the information it relied upon in making its findings was reliable and well supported.

The report focuses primarily on the Catholic Church in Victoria, the Salvation Army and the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, because these organisations are where the vast majority of offences took place. Some 80% of these related to the Catholic Church, about which the committee is scathing:

“Instead of protecting the rights and human dignity of victims and providing proper support to them, the Church has at times exerted pressure on its members to silence, denigrate or disbelieve victims, in a deliberate pursuit of thoroughly unworthy objectives … Church leaders aimed to protect, as a matter of priority, the public image and financial interests of the Church, over the interests of children.”

The committee found there was “simply no justification” for the fact that no representative of the Catholic Church directly reported criminal conduct by its members to police, and said Church leaders viewed the sex abuse crisis as “a short-term embarrassment, which should be handled as quickly as possible, to cause the least damage to the Church’s standing”.

Importantly, the report rejects as “unsatisfactory” the excuse offered by some churches (and by the Catholic bishops in particular) that allegations were mishandled in the past because child sexual abuse not well understood.

The former Archbishop of Melbourne, Frank Little, and the former Bishop of Ballarat, Ronald Mulkearns, were found to have concealed allegations brought to their attention and failed to keep records.

However, the committee is at its best where it resists the tendency of the current generation of Catholic hierarchy to try and lay all the blame on the personal failings of a generation of bishops that is now deceased or elderly and incapacitated.

The Betrayal of Trust report exhibits a nuanced understanding of the role celibacy played in the abuse, and rightly points to a much broader list of internal cultural and structural risk factors.

“The fact is that Catholic clerical culture is a machine that produces sick people.”

Sister Angela Ryan, executive office of the Church’s National Committee for Professional Standards, supplied the committee with a a list of factors within Catholic clerical culture that had led to the abuse. She described an “addictive cycle” driven by the “pedestalisation” of priests, their emotional poverty and tendency to form dependent relationships with vulnerable people, combined with the Church’s culture of secrecy and sexual obsession and an “almost complete lack of supervision of priests and religious”.

This is spot on. The fact is that Catholic clerical culture is a machine that produces sick people.

The failure of any of the religious denominations that appeared before the inquiry to conduct a full and systemic internal investigation is a theme that clangs like a loud bell throughout the report. In terms of the standards of good governance that should apply in any institution, this failure is an ongoing scandal almost as big as the abuse and its cover-up.

The Salvation Army also comes in for scathing criticism in the report over the often brutal treatment of children in its homes and institutions, including the Bayswater Boys’ Homes and Box Hill Boys’ Home, especially in the 1950s and 1970s.

Noting the almost complete absence of files on these children, the report says the Salvation Army has undertaken no investigation into systemic problems that may have contributed to abuse or to identify victims in need of assistance, and that it is “yet to make any significant endeavour to provide pastoral care for victims”.

The report is especially critical of Captain Malcolm Roberts, who fronted the committee on behalf of his indisposed boss, Commissioner Raymond Finger. Despite 474 cases accepted under the Salvation Army’s own compensation process, he “would still not acknowledge that abuse had been endemic in its institutions and homes”.

One thing the Betrayal of Trust report neglects to say is that the Salvation Army ran the Bayswater Homes on behalf of the state as borstals for children who had been placed in legal custody.

This brings us to the most significant weakness with the Victorian parliamentary inquiry: that abuse in state-run institutions was not included in its terms of reference. As Leonie Sheedy of the Care Leavers Australia Network has commented, this means only half the story has been told.

Of particular importance are the recommendations around incorporation of church entities to enable them to be sued. These are perhaps a little open-eneded, in that they recommend legislative amendment as a matter for negotiation between state and federal governments on the basis that the Corporations Act is a federal law.

However, church trusts are the responsibility of the states, and some churches are already incorporated under current Victorian legisaltion. As the report notes, these include the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the Baptists, the Lutherans and the Hungarian Reformed Church.

Victorian Premier Denis Naphthine has already said he will move immediately to introduce criminal legislation on grooming, endangerment and concealment of child sex abuse. It is to be hoped that he will also have the courage required to move quickly and decisively to amend state legislation to allow Church Trustees to be sued.

In his regular Sunday Telegraph column, Sydney Archbishop George Pell described the report as “fair and reasonable” and said an independent avenue for victims of child abuse to seek justice was an “excellent idea”. No comment though, on the recommendation for legislative changes to the Church can be sued more easily.

Despite what the Betrayal of Trust report says about bishops who view the scandal as a temporary embarrassment, the Catholic bishops are certainly well aware that their moral authority will never again be what it once was.

A tipping point has been reached in terms of public expectations. There can be no doubt that what the public wants now is for loopholes to be closed and special exemptions to be taken away.

*Stephen Crittenden is a former executive producer of ABC Radio’s Religion Department and presenter of The Religion Report on ABC Radio National.

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Peter Fray
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