Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) — My question is to the Minister for Corrections representing the Attorney-General. I was disturbed to hear recent comments from the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, expressing a desire to use gaps and exemptions in the law provided to religious organisations to sack gay and lesbian teachers and to refuse to report disclosures of child sexual abuse that have been received during confession. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse said it heard evidence of multiple cases where abuse was disclosed in confession by both victims and perpetrators. In its recent report on criminal justice, released earlier this month, it recommended making failure to report child sexual abuse in institutions a criminal offence and that this extend to information given in religious confession. My question to the minister is: will the government be implementing this recommendation of the royal commission report on criminal justice to protect children from abuse?
Ms TIERNEY (Minister for Corrections) — I thank Ms Pennicuik for her question. The questions that she poses today are questions that I think many in the community are wanting answers to, and the sentiment conveyed in the questions are ones that I think is shared by many in the community. I will seek a written response from the Attorney-General on this matter.
Ms PENNICUIK (Southern Metropolitan) — Thank you, Minister, for your answer. The archbishop also referred to the sacking of gay and lesbian teachers in Catholic schools. With regard to that issue I wonder whether the government is reconsidering its objection to the removal of exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 which would allow this to occur, given the exceptions that allow religious schools to discriminate based on marital status, lawful sexual activity and other attributes.
Ms TIERNEY (Minister for Corrections) — I thank the member for her supplementary question. Again I will convey that question to the Attorney-General and expect a response promptly.
RESPONSE TO SUBSTANTIVE QUESTION on 8 September 2017 :
The Victorian Government welcomes the release of the Royal Commission's Criminal Justice report, which makes 85 recommendations that aim to improve the operation of the criminal justice system. In this report, the Royal Commission recommended that each state and territory government should introduce legislation to create a criminal offence for failing to report child sexual abuse in institutions.
The Royal Commission also recommended that there be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from this offence granted to clergy for failing to report information about child sexual abuse that is disclosed during, or in connection with, religious confession.
Victoria already has a criminal offence for failing to report child sexual abuse to police. In Victoria, any adult who forms a reasonable belief that a sexual offence has been committed by an adult against a child under 16 has an obligation to report that information to police. Failure to disclose the sexual offence to police is a criminal offence (unless they have a reasonable excuse for not doing so).
A person does not commit the offence if the information that leads them to form a reasonable belief that a sexual offences has been committed against a child is privileged under the Evidence Act 2008. This means that clergy members are not required to report a sexual offence against a child to police if information about the offence was received during religious confession.
The offence was introduced by the former Coalition Government in 2014 in response to the recommendations made by the Betrayal of Trust report, from the Family and Community Development Committee Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and Other Non-Government Organisations. That Inquiry did not recommend changes to the confidentiality of religious confession. Accordingly, Victoria's offence does not require a person who receives information about sexual abuse in a religious confession to report that information to police. This is consistent with the approach taken to information received in religious confessions for any criminal offence.
The Victorian Government will give careful consideration to all recommendations made by the Royal Commission, including those in relation to religious confessions.
RESPONSE TO SUPPLEMENTARY QUESTION:
The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 prohibits discrimination on the basis of a specified attribute of a person, such as their sex, age or race, in certain areas of public life, such as employment, education and the provision of goods and services. The Act also provides for “exceptions” to unlawful discrimination, which recognise that discrimination may be justified in certain circumstances. An exception is a defence to an allegation of unlawful discrimination, and a person or body seeking to rely on an exception bears the burden of proving that it applies.
On 30 August 2016, the Government introduced the Equal Opportunity Amendment (Religious Exceptions) Bill 2016 (the 13111) into Parliament to amend the religious exceptions in the Act in relation to employment. Unfortunately it was defeated in the Legislative Council on 6 December 2016.
The Bill aimed to restore a fairer balance between a person's right to be free from discrimination in employment, and the appropriate protection of religious freedom.
The Constitution prevents the Government from reintroducing similar legislation within the same term.
We remain steadfastly committed to equality for all Victorians.