Australia apologies for instututional sexual abuse

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has apologised on behalf of the nation for failing and abandoning the thousands of survivors of institutional child sex abuse.

Key points:

  • The apology was a recommendation of the royal commission
  • In its final report the commission estimated the number of child victims was in the tens of thousands
  • Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also delivered an apology

In an address to Federal Parliament, Mr Morrison said there was no promise that could be made and nothing that could be done to right the wrongs of the past.

But he said the nation was now confronting a “trauma” and an “abomination” that had been hiding in plain sight for too long.

“Today, as a nation, we confront our failure to listen, to believe, and to provide justice,” he said as hundreds of people watched on from Parliament’s public galleries and Great Hall.

“To the children we failed, sorry. To the parents whose trust was betrayed and who have struggled to pick up the pieces, sorry.

“To the whistleblowers who we did not listen to, sorry.

“To the spouses, partners, wives, husbands, children, who have dealt with the consequences of the abuse, cover-ups and obstruction, sorry.

“To generations past and present, sorry.”

Mr Morrison acknowledged the “silenced voices” and “never-heard pleas of tortured souls” who were bewildered by “indifference to the unthinkable theft of their innocence”.

“I simply say, I believe you, we believe you, your country believes you,” he said.

Mr Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten both agreed to cancel Question Time in the House of Representatives on Monday out of respect for those affected by abuse.

Shorten quotes royal commission testimony

Mr Shorten opened his apology by quoting testimony from the royal commission.

“We were treated as slaves, beaten and abused, used for their perverted desires, no love or kindness, no safety or warmth, always hungry and always frightened,” he said.

Mr Shorten acknowledged Australia had “come too late” to the apology and that there were wrongs “that cannot be made right”.

“But know that today Australia says sorry. Australia says we believe you,” he said.

“And in years to come, people will learn of your lives. They will be appalled by the suffering. They will be shocked by the cruelty.”

Former prime minister Julia Gillard, who established the royal commission in 2013, was in the Chamber to witness the apology.

After the formalities, Ms Gillard received a standing ovation and rapturous applause in the Great Hall.

There were emotional scenes as the two leaders spoke and occasional heckling from the crowd.

Among the survivors watching the apology was 96-year-old Katie, who was abused at the Sisters of Saint Joseph orphanage at Gore Hill, on Sydney’s north shore.

As one of Australia’s oldest survivors of child sexual abuse, she said the apology seemed “very sincere”.

“It was beautiful, really lovely,” Katie said.

“I’m really pleased I came, and I feel that it’s answered a lot of questions for me.

“I’m able to put a lot in the past now that I wasn’t able to before, so it’s really helped me.”

Also watching was Manny Waks, who was sexually abused by a security guard at the Yeshivah Centre in Melbourne in the 1990s.

Mr Waks, who flew in from Israel especially for the occasion, said the apology should not be the end of the matter.

“They’re words and words are important,” he said.

“[However], what’s far more important is the implementation.

“The Government and institutions cannot for a moment think they’re absolved of their obligations.”

Much work still to be done: PM

Outside Parliament, victims and survivors tied ribbons around a memorial tree and were joined by Mr Morrison, who said the pain he felt in the room “grieved his soul to the core”.

“I just hope that what we’ve done here today provides some measure of relief, but there is much work to do,” he said.


The national apology was a recommendation from the royal commission, which held nearly 60 public hearings and 8,000 private sessions over five years.

In its final report, the commission estimated the number of child victims in the tens of thousands, saying their abusers were “not just a few rotten apples”.

“We will never know the true number,” it read.

“Whatever the number, it is a national tragedy, perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions.”

Mr Morrison announced that the Government would also set up a museum, to collect the stories of survivors, and fund a research centre to raise awareness about child abuse.

(c) ABC  News Australia

Breaking the silence: why priests should be made to report child abuse revealed in confession

Catholic priest picture

Last December, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made public its final report, containing 409 recommendations. The inquiry revealed that there were numerous instances where senior officials in churches failed to report allegations of child sexual abuse while in their care.

Since then, there have been steps forward. For example, on July 1, the National Redress Scheme was established to support people who have experienced institutional child sexual abuse.

What has been particularly controversial is recommendation 7.4, which states:

Laws concerning mandatory reporting to child protection authorities should not exempt persons in religious ministry from being required to report knowledge or suspicions formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession.

The conflict between the rules of the Catholic Church on the confidentiality of confessions and mandatory reporting laws is not a new issue. These laws require people from selected professions (known as “mandatory reporters”) to report suspected child abuse to government authorities. However, recommendation 7.4 has recently reignited the debate.

Australian state and territory governments are responsible for mandatory reporting laws. They have shown an intention to introduce laws that would give effect to the Royal Commission’s recommendation. If introduced, these laws would result in priests facing criminal charges if they fail to report child abuse disclosed in confession.

On 1 October, South Australia will become the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce a law compelling a “minister of religion” to report any confessions of child sexual abuse.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has argued the “safety of children should always be put first”.

However, Catholic priests argue that such laws would not “make children any safer”. They maintain that the proposed laws are “contrary to their faith and would hamper religious liberty”. Some priests are apparently “willing to go to jail” rather than break the seal.

The seal of confession

The seal of confession, also known as the “sacrament of penance” or “sacrament of reconciliation”, is fundamental to the Catholic faith. Sinners can ask for forgiveness for their sins, allowing them to “reconcile with God and the Church”. It is usually done in the confessional box in a church. The seal applies only to communications made during sacramental confession to a priest.

Canon law forbids priests from disclosing a confession. It declares:

The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

A priest who violates the confessional faces ex-communication, which is the most severe form of punishment in the Catholic faith.

While maintaining the confessional seal is “inviolable” within the Catholic Church, there is no obligation on Australia’s secular society to recognise canon law.

Religious privilege

The most recent census shows that Australia is a secular and multi-faith society. Yet, some laws in Australia continue to provide an exception for religious organisations.

For example, section 127 of the Commonwealth Evidence Act 1995 confers a privilege for religious confessions. It entitles members of the clergy to “refuse to divulge” a religious confession, but only if the confession was not made for a criminal purpose. Evidence laws in most Australian jurisdictions also protect religious confession privilege.

The privilege conferred on religious organisations would be significantly limited if recommendation 7.4 is adopted.

The religious freedom argument

Central to the debate has been that protecting the seal of confession is part of religious freedom. Priests who oppose the proposed law have argued that denying the “confessional privilege would leave them in fear of surveillance and prosecution for their religion”.

Religious freedom is recognised under section 116 of the Constitution and by Australian courts.

Australia is also a party to a several international agreements that protect religious freedom, such as International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

However, rights are not absolute, especially where there are competing rights that seek to protect people from harm. Child sexual abuse is a horrific crime that violates children’s rights. No freedom of religion argument should prevail over the rights of children not to be abused.

What will ending the secrecy achieve?

Laws mandating priests to break the confessional seal by reporting child sexual abuse sound good in theory. However, we know what is good in theory does not always work in practice.

The practicality and effectiveness of laws removing the confessional seal are questionable. This is particularly so if religious leaders are refusing to abide such laws. Because the Catholic Church has accounted for the majority (61.8%) of sexual abuse allegations investigated by the Royal Commission, the proposed legislation seems futile without the support of their clergy.

It would be wishful thinking to believe child molesters would disclose their offending in confession if priests were legally obliged to break confidentiality.

Arguably, maintaining the seal might prevent molesters from committing further acts of sexual abuse. During the confession, a priest can encourage the abuser to seek psychiatric help or come forward to the police. Indeed, some priests claim they would deny absolution to those unwilling to seek treatment or counselling for their offending.

Yet, there is a significant risk that abusers will continue to offend if they are not reported to authorities.

According to Bishop Greg O’Kelly, child abuse confessions are uncommon. He reported that “no one had ever confessed it to him in his 46 years as a priest”. This is consistent with claims made by clergy to the Royal Commission.

However, this conflicts with Dr Marie Keenan’s small-scale study, which was also referred to during the Royal Commission’s inquiry.

In this study, eight of nine of the priest participants admitted the confession box provided them with a “safe” place to confess sexual abusing children, resolve never to offend again, and seek forgiveness. Keenan observed that the secrecy and safety of the confessional space might have encouraged the abuse to continue.

We need to think outside the confessional box

The effectiveness of laws requiring priests to report child abuse in preventing future offending is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. But that is not an excuse for inaction.

We should pause and consider the implications of laws limiting the confessional seal. What would subjecting priests to criminal censure if they fail to report confessions of child abuse to the authorities accomplish? What is the lesser of the two evils: having no confession at all or having a confession with the prospect of priests guiding abusers to seek help?

Most importantly, it must be ensured that whatever is decided the situation is not made worse for victims, survivors and children in the care of institutions.

(C)  The Conversation Australia.