It sends an im­por­tant mes­sage that we have de­cided to put the rights of chil­dren first — Sheradyn Holderhead

The Advertiser - - OPINION -

END­ING priests’ legally sanc­tioned abil­ity to keep se­cret re­ports and sus­pi­cions of child abuse is a coura­geous and con­tro­ver­sial move.

But to be frank, when talk­ing to vic­tims, ad­vo­cates and ex­perts about how to tackle the ab­so­lute blight on our so­ci­ety that is child abuse, shat­ter­ing the seal of the con­fes­sional is not of­ten raised.

That does not mean the South Aus­tralian Par­lia­ment’s de­ci­sion to axe pro­tec­tions long af­forded to re­li­gious lead­ers for in­for­ma­tion gleaned un­der the “seal of the con­fes­sional” is any less sig­nif­i­cant.

What is con­stantly called for is end­ing the cul­ture of cover-up, for­give­ness and, in some cases, ac­cep­tance of the abuse of chil­dren in re­li­gious and other in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing state care.

By re­fus­ing to ac­cept that any­one who has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the care of chil­dren should be af­forded an ex­emp­tion to re­port sus­pected abuse to the rel­e­vant author­i­ties sends an im­por­tant mes­sage that we, as a com­mu­nity, have de­cided to put the rights of chil­dren first.

It is also a stern warn­ing to pae­dophiles that they have nowhere to hide.

When asked if, as a Catholic, Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull be­lieved this is­sue should be em­braced by the church, his re­sponse summed it up per­fectly: “The safety of chil­dren should al­ways be put first. We know, thanks to the Royal Com­mis­sion­ers’ work, that in far, far too many cases, it wasn’t.”

Speak­ing to for­mer SA At­tor­ney-Gen­eral John Rau this week about why he de­cided to in­clude it as part of the state’s re­write of child pro­tec­tion laws his re­sponse was equally as sim­ple: “It was the right thing to do.”

It’s also the rea­son why, at the time when the leg­is­la­tion passed in July last year, nei­ther the then La­bor Govern­ment nor the Lib­eral Op­po­si­tion, which sup­ported the move, made any song and dance about it. In the minds of both Mr Rau and then shadow At­tor­ney-Gen­eral Vickie Chap­man it was an easy de­ci­sion.

It’s un­for­tu­nate that the Catholic Church does not see it that way. Caught un­aware that the ex­emp­tion was no longer en­shrined in leg­is­la­tion, which means that as of Oc­to­ber 1 priests will be re­quired by law to re­port in­for­ma­tion about the abuse of chil­dren or face a $10,000 fine, the Ade­laide Arch­dio­cese is con­sid­er­ing its op­tions.

When asked di­rectly if priests would be told to com­ply with the law, a state­ment from act­ing Ade­laide Arch­bishop Greg O’Kelly was pro­vided, in which he said the change had “much wider im­pli­ca­tions for the Catholic Church and the prac­tice of our faith”.

“We were un­aware of this change and the im­pli­ca­tions are now be­ing con­sid­ered,” he said.

Surely, after the five-year Royal Com­mis­sion into In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Child Sex­ual Abuse, the an­swer should be a re­sound­ing “yes”.

The Com­mis­sion called for the ex­emp­tion to be axed be­cause it found many of the re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions had cultures that dis­cour­aged re­port­ing of child sex­ual abuse.

The con­fes­sional seal in the Catholic Church was found to be an in­sti­tu­tion-wide bar­rier to re­port­ing child sex­ual abuse to an ex­ter­nal au­thor­ity.

This was de­spite find­ings it was used as a fo­rum to dis­close child sex­ual abuse, both by chil­dren sub­ject to abuse and by per­pe­tra­tors of abuse. In 2014 the Angli­can Church gave priests in Aus­tralia the op­tion of break­ing the con­fi­den­tial­ity of con­fes­sions with­out dis­as­trous ef­fects.

Full dis­clo­sure: I am not re­li­gious and I ac­cept that prac­tis­ing Catholics can ar­gue that I, there­fore, have a lim­ited un­der­stand­ing of the im­por­tance of the Sacra­ment of Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. I fully be­lieve that it is a fun­da­men­tal right for a per­son to be able to freely prac­tise their reli­gion in ac­cor­dance with their be­liefs.

There is a slip­pery slope ar­gu­ment that can be made that by ac­cept­ing the shat­ter­ing the seal for this is­sue, where will it end? But we have to make a choice. Is the right of a child to be safe a lesser right?

As Mr Turn­bull said, chil­dren – who are so­ci­ety’s most vul­ner­a­ble and do not en­joy many other rights which are af­forded to adults – must be the pri­or­ity.

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