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‘Nobody is above the law, including ministers of religion’

New laws have come into effect in Western Australia, making it a legal obligation for ministers of religion to report child sexual abuse, even when information is disclosed in confession.

user iconJess Feyder 02 November 2022 Politics
‘Nobody is above the law, including ministers of religion’
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The McGowan government is implementing the Children and Community Services Amendment Act 2021, which is based on key recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

A part of the new laws to protect children from sexual abuse came into effect yesterday (1 November), requiring ministers of religion to disclose information about child sexual abuse, including if information gained during confession.

A minister of religion will not be excused from criminal responsibility for failing to make a report because their belief is based on information disclosed during a religious confession, the McGowen government said in a statement. 

 
 

Failure to make a mandatory report is now an offence with a maximum penalty of $6,000.

“For far too long, abusers have been able to hide behind religion,” said West Australian Child Protection Minister Simone McGurk.

“It’s a shameful hypocrisy that compounds the trauma for victim-survivors and enables perpetrators to go on to abuse more children.

“The McGowan government is committed to implementing the recommendations from the royal commission and will not shy away from work that needs to be done to protect children.

“The courage shown by those who bravely shared their experiences during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse will not be ignored — it’s important we do everything we can to honour them.

“This government is sending a clear message that nobody is above the law, including ministers of religion. 

“It’s never OK to turn a blind eye to child abuse — the safety of children must always come first, and perpetrators must be held to account.” 

The laws also extend mandatory reporting requirements to early childhood, out-of-home care and youth justice workers, as well as to registered psychologists and school counsellors. Assessors appointed under section 125A of the Children and Community Services Act 2004 and Department of Communities staff will also become mandatory reporters under the new laws.

The legislation is being implemented through a staggered approach to ensure that each new group is provided with tailored support on how to undertake their new responsibilities, the government said.

Ministers of religion are the first group to come into effect. Out-of-home care workers, assessors, and Department of Communities staff will follow, becoming mandatory reporters from November 2023. 

The laws will come into effect for school counsellors, registered psychologists, and early childhood workers in 2024, and for youth justice workers in 2025.

The Department of Communities’ royal commission implementation team has begun working with a wide range of faith and religious organisations to prepare them for commencement, which includes providing free mandatory reporting training.

The new measures deliver on the McGowan government’s commitment to implementing the recommendations of the royal commission — with almost half of the 310 recommendations having now been implemented.

Western Australia has followed several other states that have included ministers of religion in mandatory reporting laws, including South Australia, having implemented the law in 2017, Tasmania in 2019, and NSW in 2020. 

The ACT implemented the law in 2018 with serious penalties for not making the mandatory report as soon as practicable, with a maximum penalty of $8,000 and/or imprisonment for six months.

Lawyers Weekly reported in 2018 that the Catholic Church was seen to be fiercely resisting the new law introduced in the ACT. 

Queensland also faced pushback from religious ministers when implementing the law in 2020, as reported by ABC News in September 2020.

Bishop Michael McCarthy, leader of the Diocese of Rockhampton, commented that despite the laws, his priests were bound to keep the seal of confession, even if sexual abuse is discussed.

Bishop McCarthy’s statement came despite a case in 2004, where former Diocese of Rockhampton priest Michael McArdle was jailed for six years for 62 indecent dealing charges against 14 boys and two girls dating back to 1965.

In an affidavit filed by Mr McArdle in 2004, he revealed that he had confessed his crimes 1,500 times to 30 different priests over a 25-year period.