Vatican could be asked to change canon laws after child sex abuse commission calls for national strategy

THE Vatican could be asked to change canon laws to call child sexual abuse a crime rather than a moral failing, Australian laws could be changed to force clergy to report abuse disclosed in confession, and national and state oversight bodies could be established, under recommendations just released by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The commission has recommended the Catholic Church make celibacy voluntary after evidence that celibacy is a factor in the incidence of abuse within the church. It has also recommended that Catholic priests no longer have any role to play in the employment of principals and teachers in Catholic schools. 

The commission has recommended that Australian Catholic bishops request the Holy See to amend canon law so that all bishops across Australia are required to report child sex allegations to authorities including police, and not just bishops in NSW and Victoria where bishops can be charged with an offence for not reporting.

The commission has also recommended that Australian bishops take the lead by requesting the Holy see to lift time limits on church investigations of child sex allegations.

It has called on Australian governments to pass laws making it mandatory for clergy to report child sex allegations disclosed during confession so that religious requirements do not “exempt persons in religious ministry from being required to report knowledge or suspicions” formed during confession.

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“The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should consult with the Holy See, and make public any advice received, in order to clarify whether: a. information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession b. if a person confesses during the sacrament of reconciliation to perpetrating child sexual abuse, absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities,” the commission said.   

The commission has made 409 recommendations to protect children from sexual abuse in future, after commission chair Justice Peter McClellan handed over the final report of the five-year inquiry to Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove on Friday.

It has recommended that the Jehovah’s Witness organisation should abandon its application of a two-witness rule in cases involving complaints of child sexual abuse, and revise its policies so that women are involved in processes related to investigating and determining allegations of child sexual abuse.

The royal commission has also recommended that the Jehovah’s Witness organisation no longer require its members to shun people who leave the organisation because of child sexual abuse.

The commission has recommended an independent oversight body in each state and territory to be responsible for monitoring and enforcing new child safe standards.

The Australian Government should also develop a new National Framework for Child Safety in collaboration with state and territory governments to implement “longterm child safety initiatives, with appropriate resources, and holding them to account”.

“State and territory governments should establish nationally consistent legislative schemes (reportable conduct schemes), based on the approach adopted in New South Wales, which oblige heads of institutions to notify an oversight body of any reportable allegation, conduct or conviction involving any of the institution’s employees,” the royal commission recommended.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard, who established the royal commission in November, 2012, said on Monday that governments, churches and institutions should be given time to respond to the report and recommendations, but the Australian public would not tolerate inaction and would be “waiting and watching”.

On Thursday, after a final sitting of the commission, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten committed his party to the royal commission’s findings and repeated that the public would not accept inaction.  

If you are troubled by this report or experiencing a personal crisis, you can call Lifeline 131 114 or beyondblue 1300 224 636 or visit lifeline.org.au or beyondblue.org.au

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