WORKING WITH CHILDREN AMENDMENT (MINISTERS OF RELIGION AND OTHER MATTERS) BILL 2014

Written on the 5 August 2014

Debate resumed from 26 June.

Motion of Hon. E. J. O'DONOHUE (Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation).

 

Mr SCHEFFER (Eastern Victoria) -- Labor strongly supports the working with children check system and welcomes any measure that will strengthen the state's capacity to protect children by requiring persons working with them to be appropriately checked for suitability. It is critically important for the state to ensure that children are safe wherever they are and that a serious effort is made to identify individuals who may pose a risk to children and to prevent those people from being in a position of responsibility over children.

This is a narrow but important bill that makes positive changes to the current legislation, and Labor will not be opposing it. The Working with Children Amendment (Ministers of Religion and Other Matters) Bill 2014 amends the Working with Children Act 2005 so that the protection of children is now enshrined as the paramount, supreme consideration when applying any aspect of the Working with Children Act. This is an important principle that doubtless reflects the clear view of the Victorian community, and the setting of it into legislation comes at a point in history when deep anxiety over the welfare and treatment of children is being felt across the community.

The ways in which adults interact with children is receiving unprecedented and justified attention. The home, the kindergarten, the school and the church, which were once universally protected against criticism and marketed as sanctuaries for children, are now revealed to be in far too many instances sites of child maltreatment. Doubtless the neglect and abuse of children is as old and as pervasive a violence as adults inflict upon each other, whether that be family violence, street brawling, civil strife or indeed war among nations.

Violence and depravity are elements of the human identity, and while their origins and effects can be mitigated, it is hard to see how these traits can be altogether eliminated.

For centuries no public voice was powerful enough to call the churches and other abusive institutions to account. But today tens of thousands -- probably millions -- of voices across the globe are being raised and the cardinals and bishops, as well as the directors and the CEOs, are being called to answer.

However, it is also important to recognise that what constitutes child maltreatment and neglect is framed by history and social context, and consequently there is a range of views, values and professional opinion.

While there may be debate, for example, over whether parents have the right to hit their children or what constitutes appropriate punishment for bad behaviour and a variety of views on body mutilation, such as male and female circumcision, there is, I believe, a reasoned and humane community consensus on sexual abuse and extreme forms of neglect and corporal punishment.

The almost daily revelations of the maltreatment of children, the plethora of TV dramas and public debate surrounding these shocking reports and the powerful public reaction they generate gives hope that profound and historical change is underway. While we often behave as though the mistreatment of children at the hands of the clergy or in state-run institutions, for example, is in some way new, we know that the family home, the orphanage and the factory, as well as the church and the temple, have always been sites of the abuse and neglect of children.

In literature the writings of William Blake, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bront , Dostoevsky and Nabokov stand as testimony to the horrors of child abuse and maltreatment.

In addition, Bringing them Home, the report on the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families; Betrayal of Trust, the Victorian Parliament's report on the inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations; the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse; and the current outcry over the children of asylum seekers being imprisoned in what are effectively concentration camps by our federal government are all contemporary chapters in the struggle to both identify and document what has happened to children, to comprehend their suffering and to understand the causes so as to prevent them being mistreated and abused.

While the stories of child neglect and abuse are cause for sorrow and despair, the courage to face the issue and the struggle to stop it are cause for admiration and hope. While it is relatively small in scope, the bill before us today is another step in the right direction.

The bill makes clear that considerations relating to the protection of our children take priority over all other matters, including the right of an adult to work. The paramount interest of the child is a key value that underpins the bill, and it enshrines a fundamental belief embraced by the Victorian community.

The bill also seeks to make it crystal clear that a working with children check is a minimum requirement and not intended to substitute or replace assessment and monitoring practices that organisations and institutions should have in place to ensure that adults who work with children do not constitute a danger to those children.

Strong workplaces develop, implement and review the policies and procedures designed to protect children, and these protocols typically include measures to ensure that people who work with children are professionally qualified or trained. They ensure that workers are not left alone with children, that buildings are designed to afford visibility, that close relationships with parents are facilitated and that appropriate approvals for activities involving children are obtained and documented.

The definition of child-related work has, through the amendments in this bill, been clarified and simplified. The terms 'child-related' and 'work' are divided to simplify the definition. Work includes contract work, religious vocational duties, official appointments, practical training and volunteer work but does not include unpaid work for private or domestic purposes. Work is child-related if it usually involves direct contact with a child and that contact is not directly supervised by another person. Work is not child-related if there is only occasional direct contact with children that is incidental to the work.Clause 8 of the bill provides that if there are children in a congregation, the minister's work is deemed to be child-related work. Under the bill's definitions, 'work' means work engaged in as a minister of religion or as part of the duties of a religious vocation. This means that under the provisions of the bill religious leaders in any organised religious institution or congregation will be required to undergo a working with children check unless their role involves only occasional incidental contact with children.

While the provisions of the bill are to be supported, I am concerned that the bill leaves open the question of what happens in the case, for example, of a trainee minister, say a seminarian, whose work, as I understand it, can involve children. Persons who are not ordained ministers -- and this is a supposition on my part -- fall into the general category of employee or volunteer, and they would then be subject to the requirements of the Working with Children Act 2005. I would appreciate the minister clarifying this matter in his summing up of the debate.

Under the current law, offences in a working with children check applicant's criminal history that may represent a risk to the safety of children are categorised by numbers 1, 2 and 3 according to their severity.

The bill introduces a new system of categorisation by letters A, B or C. Under that rearrangement category 1 and 2 offences will be put in category A. Category 3 offences will be put in category B. A new section, category C, is created to cover disciplinary findings and other charges, convictions or findings of guilt for any other offence that the secretary deems relevant to the working with children check process.

The bill also makes some minor changes intended to improve the operation of the working with children check process, including the elimination of the three-month grace period that currently follows the expiration of a working with children check. The grace period is removed because of the risk that the secretary will be unable to act on any offence committed during that time. People will, however, receive reminders and will have an opportunity to renew their check prior to the expiration of their approval.

Individuals such as parents, teachers and police officers who may be eligible for an exemption from the working with children check requirement but who nevertheless choose to apply cannot later rely on their original entitlement to an exemption if they receive a negative notice. Labor supports these minor but worthwhile amendments.

It is important to recognise that screening prospective employees and volunteers who will be working with children to see whether they pose a risk is a relatively new approach, even though for many years there have been certain integrity standards for police officers and school teachers. The increasing focus on the sexual abuse of children has come about in conjunction with revelations from commissions of inquiry. As a key example I note the Wood royal commission of 1996 into the NSW police force, which investigated paedophilia in some detail.

From the late 1990s, in response to media naming and shaming campaigns and increasing public anxiety and concern about child sexual abuse, the states have progressively introduced legislation requiring organisations whose volunteers and employees work with children to devise and implement protocols that assure parents and the community that safeguards are in place to protect children. Clare Tilbury has written a useful piece in the Australian Journal of Social Issues. It is headed 'Working with children checks -- time to step back?', in which she writes:

    - There has been an increase in the formality, complexity, intensity and specialisation of regulation to improve government service delivery over the past two decades. Terms such as the 'regulatory state' ... and the 'audit society' ... have been used to conceptualise this growth, which is linked to neoliberal forms of governance that have placed 'the lessening of risk, not the meeting of need' at the centre of social policy ...

   -  Decreasing trust in government, business, and the professions has led to greater demands for accountability. The information gathering, measuring, checking, and reporting processes of regulation are intended to provide assurance that government is properly managing risk. Regulation is taken to be good, regulators themselves are not exposed to systematic scrutiny, and the costs of regulation are assumed to be worthwhile (Hood et al., 1998).

Tilbury points out that empirical research on regulatory regimes has identified some common problems that include ritualistic compliance, which can occur if formal audit practices are separated from substantive organisational processes, leading to mechanistic compliance -- ticking the boxes -- that hides underlying problems of policy or administrative failure; regulatory capture, whereby regulators are unable or unwilling to take action if standards are not met; performance ambiguity, which arises when 'good' standards cannot be clearly established; and data problems, whereby there is difficulty in measuring compliance due to adequate data being unavailable, even when performance standards are clear.

Clare Tilbury's interrogation of risk management approaches is a timely reminder that while we are supportive of measures that protect children from harm, working with children checks have expanded, and questions of effectiveness and efficiency always need to be considered. Tilbury says that the systems in place are not without problems, and she cites effectiveness, equity and cost as areas that need further consideration, and she says that we should be aiming for a better balance between routine criminal history checks and other mechanisms for identifying and monitoring the risks posed to children by people who work with them. Tilbury acknowledges that to some extent the working with children check schemes are preventive in that they dissuade people who believe they are unlikely to pass the screening test from making an application and others are prohibited from applying because of their previous offences. But she says that criminal record checking has been described as both too narrow and too broad because everyone is screened but the checks only identify the small proportion of people who have already been detected.

One of the problems is that we know that much -- perhaps most -- abusive behaviour goes unreported and the majority of the perpetrators of sexual abuse do not have prior convictions for child maltreatment. This does not mean that checks do not do anything positive, but it does mean that authorities need to ensure that parents and the community do not have a false sense of security. That is why the provision in the bill that says that the working with children check is a minimum measure is so strongly supported. Children are best protected by ensuring that staff and volunteers who work with them are appropriately trained and well supervised, that adults working with children are not left alone with them and that the physical design of facilities affords visibility and safety. The bill is, as I said, narrow in scope, but it is worthwhile and the opposition will not be opposing it.

 

Mr D. R. J. O'BRIEN (Western Victoria) -- It is with great pleasure that I rise to support and make a contribution to debate on the Working with Children Amendment (Ministers of Religion and Other Matters) Bill 2014, which is an important piece of legislation. The main objective of the bill, as outlined in the second-reading speech and in the contribution of Mr Scheffer, is to improve the rigour and operation of the Working with Children Act 2005 and the scheme under that act to clarify aspects of the act and further enhance protections afforded to children and their families.

In doing so the bill addresses one of the key recommendations of the Family and Community Development Committee report into the handling of child sexual abuse by religious and other non-government organisations, or the Betrayal of Trust report. I note that Ms Crozier and Mrs Coote are in the chamber and will make contributions shortly.

The bill also implements recommendations arising from a review by the former State Services Authority of the working with children scheme.

As touched on by Mr Scheffer, one of the key reforms in the amendments to the Working with Children Act is to insert an overarching principle that ensures the protection of children is the paramount consideration when making decisions under the act. These overarching principles that are inserted into legislation from time to time now tend to be done more frequently than in the past, and are particularly important when such difficult and delicate discretions are exercised in the decisions that are made in relation to the working with children checks that are the subject of legislation.

It is important from time to time to insert such provisions so that parliamentary intention can provide clear guidance to courts as to the priorities in weighing up the discretions that are conferred not only by this provision but by other amendments to the act made by the bill and also in the entire operation of the act -- that is, that protection of children is to be the paramount consideration when administering the act.

As I come to the end of my, hopefully, first term in Parliament, I pause to review my inaugural speech. In referring to my children I talked about the need to protect children. At that stage I had no idea of the course on which my parliamentary life would lead me in relation to the scourge of child abuse that had occurred and that still occurs, regrettably, in many institutions in society, both government and non-government, and in families, into which the Family and Community Development Committee, of which I had the privilege of being a member, was tasked to conduct its extensive inquiry.

In its report not only was the work of the victims in telling the stories that came out and that formed the horrific subject matter of the report cited time and again, but it also was the key motivator for many of the key recommendations. There was also important input from various stakeholders.

In my contribution I will briefly focus on two aspects or key provisions of this bill that are effectively mentioned in the Betrayal of Trust report. As Mr Scheffer also mentioned in his contribution, the first aspect comprises the provisions of the bill that amend references to a 'suitability' check in the Working with Children Act 2005 to a 'minimum' check so as to confirm the purpose of the act and better reflect that the working with children check does not assess an individual's suitability but rather sets a minimum standard for those wishing to engage in child-related work. In previous debates on the working with children legislation, this has been an important point.In particular I note that when the legislation was first proposed the member for Benalla in the other place in his contribution to the debate was at pains to outline the concerns that can arise if too great a reliance is placed on a working with children check as a so-called 'pass' that suggests everything is okay and that other safeguards need not be considered. That is certainly not the evidence that was presented to the Family and Community Development Committee inquiry. It is in a sense guided by some of the statistics. Between April 2006 and June 2014 there were a total of 1 465 619 checks issued, resulting in 939 344 cardholders.

The total number of negative notices has been 1835, which indicates that the system does work at least -- at least in those 1835 cases -- to provide a check and identify that there is a problem or potential problem, but it does not mean, as has been stated time and again, that it is an all clear. That is why it is important that this legislation makes that specific amendment to address that sometimes tragically false presumption.

To continue further on that point, on page 245 of Betrayal of Trust the committee reports hearing evidence from Mr Geary, the commissioner for children and young people, who told the inquiry that on its own the working with children check is not sufficient. Mr Geary said:

    - Working with children checks are an important part of preventing such abuse, but they are not sufficient on their own.

    - Organisations need to develop a culture of safety that includes screening, supervision, monitoring and importantly listening to children.

I pause to emphasise 'listening to children'. He went on to say:

    - Churches and community groups must develop child-safe practices that hold the protection of children at their core. Policies and practices are required to guide senior staff on how to respond to any concerns raised about child safety. Central to these policies and practices is the development of a culture within an organisation that does not accept or tolerate concerning or criminal behaviour towards children.

The report then goes on to consider that issue, leading to its recommendation 10.1, which has effectively been part of the momentum for this important reform.

The second aspect of the bill which I will touch on in my contribution is the amendments relating to ministers of religion. This is another important, key or seminal aspect of the Betrayal of Trust report. The amendments will be important to confirm again that that no-one is above the law and that our trusted institutions -- and in particular the churches, especially the Catholic Church but also the Salvation Army and the other institutions that were named and that gave evidence all through the inquiry -- had in fact betrayed that trust. In relation to this particular reform and issue, Mr Geary is quoted on page 240 of the report as saying:

    - Religious organisations are special places of trust. They work with vulnerable people in their most vulnerable moments. This highlights the need for a special emphasis on religious organisations. For example, all religious personnel should be required to have a working with children check.

    - Currently only religious personnel who have regular, direct and unsupervised contact with children are required to have a check. I think this classification is ridiculous and too narrow for religious organisations.

The committee made its recommendation 10.1 to clarify the requirements on religious organisations to ensure that ministers of religion have a current working with children check. This legislation delivers on this recommendation. There has been the intervening step of the government's response to the Betrayal of Trust report. As a member of the government, I am very proud to again note its timely response not only with this legislation but also with other pieces of legislation that have been brought before the Parliament. With this important provision, the working with children check as it relates to ministers of religion will be improved.

If the bill is to go into committee, it is probably best to allow the minister to respond in detail to Mr Scheffer's questions about the position in relation to seminaries. Briefly, if it will assist to resolve the issue, it is my advice that in many instances if seminarians are presently working with children, they would be caught under section 9(3) of the act, which says:

    The services, bodies, places or activities in connection with which regular direct contact with a child may result in work, or practical training, of a kind referred to in subsection (1) being child-related work ...

This bill will make some important definitional substitutions in relation to the definition of child-related work, which have been outlined by Mr Scheffer. Under clause 6 the bill also makes important changes to the definition of a minister of religion to pick up those ministers of religion who are appointed as:

(a) . . . a recognised religious leader in an organised religious institution; or

(b)  the appointed leader of a local religious congregation in an organised religious institution who has general authority over the operations of that congregation within that institution . . .

That would certainly include seminarians. One would take the view that they are at the very least part of the congregation as well, but those matters can be further canvassed by the minister and indeed the courts. I have the great privilege to commend this bill to the house and ensure its hopefully speedy passage.

 

Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) -- The Greens are supportive of the Working with Children Amendment (Ministers of Religion and Other Matters) Bill 2014. The main purpose of the bill is to amend the Working with Children Act 2005 to provide for the protection of children to be the paramount consideration when administering the act. As the minister outlined in his second-reading speech, that is because the High Court has ruled that if there is to be an overriding purpose, it needs to be explicitly stated in the act. Of course everybody in the community would agree that the protection of children should be the paramount concern of the Working with Children Act 2005.

The bill also makes it clear that a working with children check provides a minimum check rather than a suitability check, to avoid any suggestion that requiring working with children checks means an employer or other organisation has no further responsibility to assess or monitor the suitability of its staff or volunteers. That goes to the point raised by Mr David O'Brien.

I raised the point before with regard to the previous legislation that just because working with children checks are undertaken does not mean you are going to catch everyone who could be a danger to children, because they may not have a criminal record or any other record that would show up, so organisations need to put in place other means to make sure that the environments they put children in are safe environments.

The bill clarifies the definition of 'child-related work' by splitting the term and separately defining 'child-related' and 'work' as two distinct concepts.

It also simplifies the concept of 'direct contact' and redefines the definition of 'supervision'.

Importantly the bill requires that ministers of religion who have contact with children undergo a working with children check. The absence of that requirement was an anomaly and a gap in the legislation that should never have been, and it is good that it is addressed by this bill. As Mr O'Brien said, the requirement also fulfils a key recommendation of the Betrayal of Trust report. I think Ms Crozier and Mrs Coote are also going to speak about the bill as it relates to that report.

The bill improves the operation of the assessment notice process, including changing and expanding the category of offences.

It simplifies and revises the three-category system, as this affects the test the secretary applies to people to determine whether they will be granted an assessment notice on application or assessment. I paid attention to those changes to see exactly why the government had put them in place. I have not received any representations from stakeholders about it, but as I understand it, category 1 applications will now be referred to as category A and will include the most serious offences. Under that category, the secretary is required to refuse a working with children check. Individuals in this situation are able to appeal the decision to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).

Category 2 applications will now be referred to as category B applications, bringing what previously were category 3 offences and category 2 offences into the single new category B. This category will include the new offences of armed robbery, child stealing, leaving a child unattended and failing to protect a child from harm; offences relating to installing, using or maintaining optical surveillance devices; and pending charges for all category B offences. Again the secretary will be required to refuse a working with children check in response to all category B applications unless satisfied that giving an assessment notice would not pose an unjustifiable risk to the safety of children, having regard to the factors set out in section 13(2) of the principal act, which go to the nature and gravity of the offence, the sentence imposed, the age of the applicant and the victim at the time et cetera, and of course giving regard to the overarching principle of the act, which is the protection of children.

The secretary must also be satisfied that a reasonable person would allow his or her child to have direct contact with that applicant who was not directly supervised by another person.

Category 3 applications are to become category C applications. Under this category the secretary can consider offences that do not fall into categories A or B. The previous exceptional circumstances category that was provided for under section 17 of the act is also replaced by the new category C applications. The test for the new category C will be a two-part test, with the secretary required to refuse to give an assessment notice if one part of the two-part test is not satisfied. The test requires the secretary to give an assessment notice unless he or she is satisfied that giving the assessment notice would pose an unjustifiable risk to the safety of children and unless the secretary is satisfied that a reasonable person would not allow his or her child to have direct contact with that applicant.

The bill also replaces the secretary's power to suspend an assessment notice with the power to revoke an assessment notice in situations where a request to an applicant for further information has been ignored. In that circumstance, if a person is not communicating with the secretary, the secretary could revoke the assessment notice rather than simply suspend it. The bill clarifies that becoming subject to reporting obligations or supervision or detention notice orders under sex offender legislation is a circumstance requiring automatic suspension and gives the secretary the authority to request information in relation to individuals whose matters are going to be heard at VCAT for the purposes of assisting VCAT.The bill includes other measures to generally improve the operation of the principal act and amends provisions of the VCAT act relating to the Working With Children Act 2005. These are all good reforms, and the Greens are happy to support the bill.

Sitting suspended 6.30 p.m. until 8.03 p.m.

 

 

Mrs COOTE (Southern Metropolitan) -- It is with a great deal of pleasure that I rise to speak in the debate on the Working with Children Amendment (Ministers of Religion and Other Matters) Bill 2014.

As members know, this government said right at the outset that it would address the issue of vulnerable children in our state. It started with Ms Wooldridge, the Minister for Community Services, calling on Philip Cummins, a retired judge, to inquire into our vulnerable children. He came down with a comprehensive report entitled Report of the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry. I am very proud to be part of a government that has acknowledged all those recommendations and is systematically going through and implementing them.

One of those recommendations was for the Parliament to conduct an inquiry into child abuse within non-government organisations. I was a member of that committee together with Mr David O'Brien, who gave a very good explanation of this bill just a little while ago, and Ms Crozier, who was the chair of the committee and who will make a contribution to the debate after me. Our inquiry was a milestone in this Parliament. The committee produced a bipartisan report called Betrayal of Trust, and the committee's recommendations, all of which were agreed to by the government, are being systematically implemented, and this bill is a part of that.

I remind the house that reforms that have already been introduced include new anti-grooming laws, making it an offence for persons in authority to fail to take action to protect children in their organisations against known child abusers, requiring the reporting of child abuse to police and requiring organisations working with children to meet new child safe standards.

As I said, one of the recommendations of the Betrayal of Trust report was to increase the requirements for ministers of religion in respect of the working with children check. The committee was mindful of the working with children check and canvassed a whole range of ideas and issues. It was complex. We wanted to make quite certain that we did not create too much red tape for the thousands of volunteers in our community who work with children. It was very important that we did not stymie the many organisations out there that are doing a very good job. However, it became evident to us that ministers -- and this bill actually enunciates what that means -- needed to have working with children checks. It was imperative.

I ask that members forgive me for referring to the amendments in the bill -- I know Mr O'Brien has comprehensively gone through them -- but I would like to reinforce them in my contribution to the debate.

The changes to the working with children check will improve the rigour and operation of the scheme and further enhance the protection of children and their families. Protecting children from abuse is a community-wide concern, and the working with children check is one tool for organisations to use in assessing the suitability of a person working with or caring for children.

These amendments will strengthen the existing mechanisms under the act to ensure that the safety and wellbeing of children is paramount. Principally the amendments set out that the protection of children is to be a paramount consideration when administering the act. They make it very clear that a working with children check provides a minimum check rather than a suitability check. This bill makes it clear that the working with children check requirement does not mean that an employer or any other organisation has no further responsibility to assess or monitor the suitability of their staff or volunteers.

The amendments clarify the definition of child-related work; require all ministers of religion who have contact with children in their congregations to obtain a working with children check; revise the working with children check assessment procedures; replace the secretary's power to suspend a working with children check with a power to revoke a working with children check when an application fails to provide requested information; and make a range of other improvements to the operation of the act.

There is one thing in the list that I have just read out that I would like to reiterate -- that is, about an employer or another organisation having no further responsibilities. A number of the organisations who spoke to the inquiry said they would like to have some parameters and they would like to know what the parameters were. They looked at Child Wise and a number of other existing programs which they -- these are the very responsible employers -- felt they could take back to their employees and organisations to show what they wanted the culture of their organisations to be like. They are to be commended. We interviewed many of them, and they were looking forward to hearing about where to go to get that information.

Regardless of what we do in this place, regardless of what changes employers make and regardless of what changes schools make, we were told, to our horror, that most of the abuse of children is perpetrated by someone they know. It happens in the home and can involve a relative or a friend.

We will never be able to fully protect the children within our community. The government has done an enormous amount on family violence and looking into what should be happening. It has been the hallmark of the government's approach to looking into protecting families against violence and the children who are caught up in that.

The sad statistic is that one in three children witness a violent attack by their parents or the people around them. We have got to protect our children, and making legislation is a very big part of that. It is our responsibility, but it is the responsibility of the community as well.

The working with children check will not determine a person's suitability to work with children; rather it legally permits individuals to engage in child-related work if they do not have a relevant criminal history.

It is important that these measures are clarified in this bill, because it has to be very clear to people who read this legislation in the future what our intent was, what it means for them and how they can relate it to their own organisations. The working with children check is only one factor that an organisation must consider when deciding whether a person should be working with children. Each organisation should have additional robust screening and supervision practices. We cannot emphasise that enough. That is something that was very evident when we were going through the public hearings and compiling the Betrayal of Trust report, and it is extremely important. As I said, this is not just our responsibility in this place in making legislation; it is the community's challenge as well.

In relation to ministers of religion being subject to the working with children check, it was very interesting to hear Mr Scheffer talk about seminarians in his contribution.

We had a horrific story told to us by a young person who had been seduced by a priest who was in training at what was then the Glen Waverley training centre for priests, a seminary. This young man had gone to a local Catholic school. He was a most attractive young man, and he was seduced by another young seminarian. He was asked to dinner in Glen Waverley. He thought that was such an honour, but when he got there he realised it was not dinner he was there for. He was systematically abused by those priests. Mr Scheffer spoke about seminarians, and they too are included in this -- as is anyone who has an opportunity to be close to children. Other examples we heard were about people -- priests in particular -- who were in positions of administration in various schools, particularly in primary schools, and had a lot of access to children. They too perpetrated some absolutely heinous crimes against children.

So there is a reason for this bill, and it is imperative that we pass it tonight. It is also imperative that we understand why we are doing this.

I am not for one minute saying that all ministers of religion -- of any religion -- are bad. We found that there are many good priests -- particularly, I would like to say again, Father Dillon from Geelong. He really is an outstanding member of the Catholic community. But we have to make quite certain that we put in place a very clear framework so that this does not happen again.

What will this legislation do in relation to ministers? These changes give effect to a recommendation arising from the Betrayal of Trust report of the parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child sexual abuse by religious and other non-government organisations. The report observes that ministers of religion occupy a unique place within the community that places them in a position of trust and authority and notes that the working with children check should be applicable to people who occupy such roles.

Requiring all ministers of religion who have contact with children in their congregations to have a working with children check further enhances the protection of children and their families.

This is a really important bill. It is a vital step in protecting our vulnerable children in this state. I think all of us in this chamber and in this Parliament can feel very proud that we are doing something that is going to enable the children of Victoria to lead safer lives into the future.

 

Ms CROZIER (Southern Metropolitan) -- I am also very pleased to rise to speak this evening on the Working with Children Amendment (Ministers of Religion and Other Matters) Bill 2014. As other members have stated in their contributions, this bill is very important in protecting Victoria's children, and I acknowledge both the opposition and the Greens for their support of this important bill. This is yet another reform that the Napthine government is undertaking to further protect Victoria's children. It arises out of the inquiry that I had the privilege to take part in as chair of the Family and Community Development Committee, along with committee members Mr David O'Brien and Mrs Coote in this chamber and members of the other place as well. In undertaking that inquiry we heard some very real evidence that enabled us to come to the conclusion that working with children checks should apply to ministers of religion.

Of course a number of other reforms have arisen out of that inquiry, and I am pleased that has been the case. The government has acted very swiftly.

Grooming legislation was brought into the Parliament within a month of the tabling of the report. Criminal law reforms emanating from the inquiry include making the failure to report child abuse to police an offence and making it an offence for persons in authority to fail to take action to protect children in their organisations. In addition the former child safety commissioner, Bernie Geary, was charged to undertake a review of the Working with Children Act 2005 and make recommendations to the Minister for Community Services, the Attorney-General and the Secretary of the Department of Justice. This bill has emanated from that review, as I said, and I thank Mr O'Brien for going through the details and the technical aspects of the bill.

I draw members' attention to some of the evidence we heard during the inquiry, and I hope we never come across this situation again. As has been highlighted, there are very good members of various religious organisations and within our religious communities who undertake very good and significant works.

That applies to any religion or faith and in any area in which they worship or undertake their particular religion. I refer to evidence in the report that highlighted to us the necessity for such action, and I quote from page 57 of volume 1:

    One startling fact for which the Christian Brothers could provide no explanation related to St Alipius, a primary school connected to that church in Ballarat East. During 1973, the principal and grade 6 teacher was Brother Robert Best, the grade 5 teacher was Brother Stephen Farrell and the grade 3 teacher was Brother Gerald Leo Fitzgerald. Additionally, the school chaplain was Father Gerald Ridsdale. Extraordinarily, the only teacher not subsequently suspected or convicted of sexual abuse of children teaching at that school was a female lay teacher. In evidence to the inquiry, deputy province leader of the Christian Brothers, Brother Julian McDonald, said:

    I have no adequate explanation for that ... It is certainly an accident of history. It was a terrible, terrible situation.

    The committee was concerned that the deputy province leader could not provide an explanation regarding how three teachers and the school principal who were perpetrators of criminal child abuse could be working at the school at the same time ...

Admittedly that was in 1973, and I hope we never see such a situation arise again. That was the evidence the committee heard, and we felt we needed to make reference to that very important element. Prevention of child sexual abuse within non-government organisations was obviously paramount in many of the recommendations we made.

As has been said, you cannot rely on working with children checks alone; organisations need to undertake reforms in other areas, and I refer to the section of the report where the committee identified three core elements that form the basis for creating child-safe environments and preventing criminal child abuse. They were creating child-safe organisational cultures, managing situational and environmental risks and the effective selection of suitable personnel, which involves not only establishing recruitment practices but undertaking criminal checks such as police checks and working with children checks. As highlighted by Mr O'Brien when talking about the technical aspects of the bill, that is an area that needs to be addressed by organisations and needs to be proportionate to the risk to children. Obviously the example I cited was an extreme case, and I hope it will never arise again.

I am confident that since our inquiry we have alerted the community to problems in many areas, and I commend all the faiths and organisations that have undertaken significant work. I particularly commend the Jewish community and the women's Muslim group that appeared before us and were proactive in the work they were doing towards protecting children within their own communities.

As we know, there is more evidence coming to light, and I am very proud that this government has acted so swiftly to protect Victoria's children. Obviously the royal commission is in place at this point in time, but we do not know when that will conclude and I do not think the community can wait for the royal commission to hand down its recommendations before acting to enable the future protection of children. I particularly commend the Attorney-General and the Premier for taking a leading role in this regard and undertaking thesignificant reforms that the Napthine government has instituted.I am pleased that those who have contributed to the debate this evening understand the importance of this bill and I thank them for their support. With those words I wish the bill a very speedy passage.

 

Mr ONDARCHIE (Northern Metropolitan) -- Tonight I rise to speak on this very important piece of legislation: the Working with Children Amendment (Ministers of Religion and Other Matters) Bill 2014. This bill is another step in our calculated approach to tackling child abuse in all its forms. This bill means that those who work with children will be properly screened so that we can find and keep out of the system as many people as possible who would do them harm.

The bill also clarifies terms within the act, sending a clear message to both the judiciary and the community at large about what is covered and not covered by these checks. Essentially the bill is designed to stop those who would commit child abuse from slipping through the cracks of our working with children checks. I make no apologies on behalf of the Victorian government for protecting our children. That is what we are here to do. One of the most important steps that any government, any society, can take is to look after our children.

I take the opportunity to commend those who have already spoken tonight on this bill, particularly on its technical elements, and commend the work of my friend and colleague Georgie Crozier and those who were involved in the Betrayal of Trust report because it set the foundations for the legislation we are putting through. I take my hat off to them and commend them on that very important piece of analysis and research. I am proud of this government's approach to reform in this area.

Despite the seriousness of issues surrounding child sexual abuse we have not blazed away with half-baked reforms that will not stand the test of time. We announced an inquiry into child sexual abuse, and we have taken a targeted and measured approach to policy reform in this area that is in line with democracy's best traditions.

I am also comforted by the fact that this will not be the last piece of reform our government pursues to ensure that we have taken all reasonable steps to stop child abuse. These bills also reinforce the normative idea that child abuse in any setting is wrong. The more we can inform young kids about this issue, the more they have the ability to speak out against their perpetrators. Kids are entitled to have a voice here. I am also hopeful that this bit of reform requiring priests to get accreditation to work with children will be considered nationally.

The coalition government of Victoria is taking a leadership role on this issue, which could set the tone for a national response. Other states and territories will look at what we are doing in requiring ministers of religion to have a working with children check if they have dealings with children and families. They will have a good, hard look at this, and I am hopeful that they will follow suit. This is a very important piece of legislation. We are protecting our kids in Victoria. I commend the bill to the house.

 

Mrs KRONBERG (Eastern Metropolitan) -- It is a privilege to be able to speak to this bill tonight, and I do so with a considerable amount of pride. I too commend the Premier of this state and our Attorney-General, Robert Clark, for expediting this legislation, because these measures are urgently needed.

For far too long we have heard stories of innocent individuals who have suffered from institutionalised and enshrined practices, whether in institutions, schools or families, which can be described no better than as a form of depravity and self-indulgence of the most creepy and disgusting kind.

Bringing forward the Working with Children Amendment (Ministers of Religion and Other Matters) Bill 2014 is very important because, as the Betrayal of Trust report has revealed, evil has been perpetrated and has prevailed in every corner of our society. For the sake of all of the clean-living people who are thoroughly committed to their faith, religion or doctrine and to doing their best for society and the innocents in their care, we want to make sure that the perpetrators of the evil that led to this legislation are exposed. Hopefully they will be suitably punished and held accountable to their God and that this will see an end to this institutionalised practice, which arose in every corner of this land and in lands outside of Australia.

We only need to view the program on this issue that was screened on SBS a few days ago for confirmation of that fact. This practice has prevailed throughout the world.

The amendments contained in this bill require all ministers of religion who have contact with children in their parishes or congregations to have a working with children examination, and we know this will provide a means to better protect children. The protection of children has always been and must always be paramount in our society. No stone can be left unturned when it comes to the protection of children. With the working with children check we now have a mandatory minimum standard for people who engage in child-related work. This is a tool that hopefully will help organisations in their quest and their diligent work to ensure that environments under their administration,jurisdiction and oversight are safe for children to interact with, to be taught and to be inspired.There will be an improvement in the rigour and operation of the working with children scheme, which will further enhance the protection of children in this state. To echo what my colleague Mr Ondarchie said in terms of setting a standard, Victoria can be an exemplar for other jurisdictions in this great commonwealth of Australia. They will see what has been instigated here by the government of Victoria in the bill currently before the house. Strengthening the existing provisions under the act will ensure that the safety of children is paramount. The minimum check provisions are an alert to employers and organisations that they need to further monitor the interactions their staff and volunteers have with children.

I am proud of the work that my colleagues in this house who are members of the committee did in the inquiry: Georgie Crozier and Andrea Coote, members for Southern Metropolitan Region, and David O'Brien, a member for Western Victoria Region. The inquiry was an ordeal for everybody who was involved in it.

Two of my constituents, a mother and her daughter, came to my office in recent months and gave testimony about what it was like to be abused by their father and grandfather respectively, a man who also happened to be their religious leader and who held them and their congregation in thrall. The daughter and granddaughter had nowhere to go. This man, the religious leader, abused them on a sustained basis. They are now dealing with the mental health issues that are a direct result of that sustained abuse. There is no corner of this society in which we can leave a stone unturned.

I want to end on a positive note because I work with faith leaders across my electorate. I know they will welcome this legislation because they, like all of us here tonight, want to see the protection of children as the paramount consideration for our society. I commend the bill to the house.

Motion agreed to.

Read second time.

Committed.

Committee

Clause 1

Hon. E. J. O'DONOHUE (Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation) -- I seek leave for Mr David O'Brien to join me at the table.

Leave granted.

 

Mr SCHEFFER (Eastern Victoria) -- I have a few questions in relation to clause 1. I raised one of these issues in my contribution to the second-reading debate, and Mr David O'Brien also made reference to it in his contribution. The first point is that the bill makes clear what the obligations are of ordained ministers. My question is: what bearing do the provisions of the bill have on seminarians or trainee ministers, for example?

Hon. E. J. O'DONOHUE (Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation) -- In response to the question from Mr Scheffer, I am advised that currently a minister of religion is only required to get a working with children check if they are engaged in child-related work in connection with one of the occupational fields listed in section 9(3) of the principal act. This situation will remain the case for all people engaged in child-related activities as part of a religious vocation, as set out in the definition of 'child-related work' in section 3(1).

The bill is now extending the working with children check requirement to ministers of religion under a new definition to be contained in section 3(1) requiring this cohort to obtain a working with children check in all circumstances unless their contact with a child is purely occasional or incidental, or in the situation where the person in question is an appointed leader of a congregation, that congregation does not contain any children.

Mr SCHEFFER (Eastern Victoria) -- I understand that, and the bill is clear on that point. My question goes to where an individual is not an ordained minister but is training for a position like that -- for example, a seminarian in the Catholic system who is not yet an ordained minister but in essence acts within the organisation in the way that an ordained minister might act, taking Sunday school or instruction of some sort. What happens in those circumstances?

Hon. E. J. O'DONOHUE (Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation) -- In the scenario Mr Scheffer puts to the committee, a working with children check would be required because the person in question is working with children.

Mr SCHEFFER (Eastern Victoria) -- So that means they fall under the provisions in the way any other citizen would?

Hon. E. J. O'DONOHUE (Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation) -- That is correct.

Mr SCHEFFER (Eastern Victoria) -- I thank the minister for that. My second question goes back to ordained ministers. The bill says that basically they would be required to obtain a working with children check unless any direct contact with children is incidental. What I am asking the minister is: how is 'incidental' defined?Hon. E. J. O'DONOHUE (Minister for Liquor and Gaming Regulation) -- It is intended that this definition of 'incidental' be given its plain English meaning. Of course the facts and circumstances may vary, and that would be considered in coming to a conclusion of what is incidental in each and every case.

Clause agreed to; clauses 2 to 46 agreed to.

 

Reported to house without amendment.


Email Subscribe

Please sign up to receive Georgie's e-newsletter




© 2011 Authorised by Georgie Crozier, 1/667-669 Glenhuntly Road Caulfield VIC 3162 | Privacy Policy | Sitemap