Wrongs Amendment (Organisational Child Abuse) Bill 2016

Written on the 23 March 2017

 
21 March 2017

COUNCIL 

Second Reading Speech

GEORGIE CROZIER (LIB - Southern Metropolitan)

 

I am very pleased to be able to rise to speak to the Wrongs Amendment (Organisational Child Abuse) Bill 2016. As other speakers have very eloquently put the case in relation to why this is necessary, I want to commend those speakers who have spoken on this bill, but before I go to the detail of the bill can I also acknowledge the work of and how this bill originated from the Victorian Parliament's inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations and the subsequent report, the Betrayal of Trust, which I had the privilege as chair to work on.

As members have highlighted, this was a really very thorough inquiry that looked into so many issues that were extraordinarily difficult, and one of the areas that we constantly faced as a committee was the legal barriers to claims by these many, many victims who were victims of child abuse through organisations that children were in the care of. Looking at the bill, it does go to the heart of some of those areas of the barriers and it implements recommendation 26.4 from the report. This, may I say, was also supported in principle by the previous coalition government and in fact all of the recommendations were and I was very pleased that the former coalition government wasted no time in actually implementing the recommendations that the committee made. In doing so some excellent legislation has gone through to further protect children in this state, so I am very proud of that and very proud of that work, and this work continues, and I am pleased that the government is continuing with the important work of protecting children.

The main provisions of this bill will provide a number of things, and they are really to amend the Wrongs Act 1958 and impose a new and additional duty of care on organisations that exercise care, supervise or are in positions of authority over children. That will then prevent physical or sexual abuse.

As I said, the committee and the report made a number of recommendations, and in relation to the findings that this particular recommendation came from I will go back and look at the work we did. There were a whole range of witnesses that we heard from, and those barriers were really significant. One was the statute of limitations. We heard very famous cases in relation to that, and we heard about those various elements. Of course we heard from Father Kevin Dillon in relation to a number of areas into which he provided insight for us as a committee. I commend all the work that Father Dillon has done and continues to do in relation to this excellent work, and I know Ms Tierney is nodding because she would know him, being a representative of the Geelong area.

Father Dillon when he spoke to the committee about his responsibility highlighted to the committee the grey area, if I can call it that, of the elements of how a priest is employed. I think that goes to this issue, because there was no real relationship in relation to how the priests were employed. As Father Dillon points out, they were on one hand employees and then they were not employees on the other hand. This was one of those areas because there was no sense of belonging. In this quote he explains this. He says it felt 'disengaging' when the church considered him to be self-employed or a contractor. He told the committee:

I have been a priest for 44 years. I started studying for the priesthood in 1962. I have spent all my life in parishes, and I am grateful that I have. I would not call it an insult to be told that I am self-employed or a contractor, but I would call it disengaging. There is a sense of not belonging.

He was really so persuasive and so sincere in his commitment to getting this right, and he explained to the committee just that confusion. That is what the committee found. There was no responsibility by many organisations to take on that. Indeed there were a number of, as I said, barriers to those people taking legal action. If you look back on this chapter where we were discussing all of this and teasing out the issues, the key findings include:

Victims of criminal child abuse find it difficult to:

  • find an entity to sue because of the legal structures of some non-government organisations;
  • initiate action within the limitation period for child abuse cases specified in the statute of limitations;
  • establish that an organisation has a legal duty to take reasonable care to prevent child abuse by its members;
  • identify a legal relationship between the perpetrator and the entity;
  • convince courts that organisations should be subject to vicarious liability for criminal acts.

If I go back again, it was Father Dillon's evidence that really made it very clear to us that there was this grey area and that for many people it was very hard to be able to sue an organisation such as a religious organisation. Many of the perpetrators in these settings could, as we found, derive their credibility from their association with the organisation, and they were able to hide behind that. So the organisations were also able to hide behind that.

In relation to this particular recommendation, finding 26.9 states:

Because perpetrators of criminal child abuse in organisational settings derive their credibility from their association with the organisation, there is a need to recognise the legal obligation of organisations to reasonably ensure the safety of children who come into contact with their members. This includes implementing effective employment controls and adopting best practice in relation to risk management and prevention.

Really that is what this is about in relation to understanding the obligations and ensuring that some of these heinous crimes that were conducted by some of these perpetrators can never happen again and that organisations have an obligation and a duty to ensure that that does not occur as well.

There are many elements to this issue. I will not go on about what else we found in relation to some very significant evidence that came before the committee but it was very evident that there was vicarious liability. There were statutory models that we found through organisations, as already stated. I think it was Ms Fitzherbert who spoke about the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 here in Victoria and the commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984. That really set out how that can be undertaken through those provisions and how those organisations also have a duty under those acts.

As I said, I was very proud to be a part of this report, and the ongoing royal commission is looking into many of these issues as well. I know the royal commission is, quite frankly, experiencing many of the issues that we found during the course of the extensive inquiry we conducted here. I am very pleased that the government is moving on with implementing the recommendations. This bill is yet another one of those. Whilst the royal commission at a national level might be coming to its conclusion, I think many of the issues in that inquiry will be similar to what we found. But this is one area where we can put in place some safeguards to ensure the safety of children in Victoria. This amendment to the Wrongs Act 1958 will provide those.

I note that the Attorney-General and others have spoken about this issue. I think it is very reasonable that organisations are held accountable for their actions and that they have a legal duty to take reasonable care to prevent criminal child abuse from occurring in whatever organisation it may be. With those words I concur with my colleagues. I am pleased that the bill is before us and that we have got to this point, and I look forward to more recommendations from the Betrayal of Trust report becoming law.

The ACTING PRESIDENT (Mr Ramsay) Order! Thank you, Ms Crozier, and again congratulations for the work your committee did in that inquiry.

Motion agreed to.

Read second time.

Committed.


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