Late tonight the NSW Parliament passed historic changes to the criminal law that deliver substantial improvements to child abuse laws, but both Labor and the Coalition failed to support a Greens amendment that would have removed the special protection from priests and other members of the clergy who failed to tell police about child sexual abuse.
The Royal Commission unambiguously recommended the removal of the confessional as a barrier to reporting child sexual abuse:
We recommend that the failure to report offence should apply in relation to information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession, and that there should be no excuse, protection nor privilege in relation to religious confessions for the failure to report offence (recommendation 35).
Despite this recommendation under the laws passed by Parliament tonight it will now be up to the Director of Public Prosecutions of the day to decide whether a prosecution for concealment can proceed against a priest or other member of the clergy. Political pressure on the government did obtain a late amendment to the bill so that the DPP, and not as originally drafted the Attorney General, has to provide consent. This at least takes some of the politics from the decision.
Greens MP and Justice Spokesperson David Shoebridge said:
“This was a missed opportunity to implement one of the most symbolic recommendations from the Royal Commission.
“Abolishing the ‘sanctity’ of the confessional is important to send an unambiguous message that no religion will be put before the safety of children.
“In what was otherwise a major win for victims and survivors, when it comes to the confessional the Coalition and Labor both put the interests of the Church ahead of the safety of children.
“The Royal Commission made it clear that there should be no special protections for priests or ministers of religion, however once again religion got in the way of good legislation.
“Thousands of children have been sexually abused in religious intuitions and priests and ministers of religion knew about it and did nothing. This was a chance to ensure that never happens again.
“It will now be up to the Director of Public Prosecutions of the day to determine whether a clergy member can be prosecuted for concealing child sexual abuse.
“There is no question that the bulk of what passed tonight protects victims and makes it more likely that perpetrators will be brought to justice.
“Reforms that survivors and the Greens have been championing for years, such as fairer sentencing and protections of child victims, will go a long way to delivering justice.
“It’s just on six months since the Royal Commission concluded and we are already seeing the legal landscape shifting in favour of victims. This is a remarkable change that is a credit to the Royal Commission and all the victims and survivors who gave evidence before it.
“This is not the end of this battle for justice, the Parliament must return to this issue and I am certain will in the future end the archaic protections given to priests and other members of the clergy.
“It is a real pity that in what was otherwise a historic win for survivors, the government can’t bring itself out of the 1950s and finally end the special protection of priests. ” Mr Shoebridge.