The primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, Archbishop Philip Freier, has thanked members of the country’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, for helping the church to “confront its failings” when it comes to protecting children and responding appropriately to reports of abuse. He said that the commission’s case studies involving branches of the Anglican Church—which included the Diocese of Newcastle—“have been shocking and distressing.” He said that the diligent work of the commissioners and their staff “must have been distressing” for them and for survivors. “Once again, I apologise on behalf of the Church to survivors, their families, and others harmed by our failures and by the shameful way we sometimes actively worked against and discouraged those who came to us and reported abuse,” he said in a statement issued as the final report of the commission was presented to the federal Parliament.
The final report sets out 189 individual recommendations in a range of areas, in addition to other recommendations on issues that include checks on those working with children, redress and civil litigation, and criminal justice; bringing the total number to 409. Fifty-eight of those recommendations target religious institutions, with five directed specifically at the Anglican church.
The report calls for the adoption of “a uniform episcopal standards framework that ensures that bishops and former bishops are accountable to an appropriate authority or body in relation to their response to complaints of child sexual abuse.”
And it says that the Anglican Church of Australia “should adopt a policy relating to the management of actual or perceived conflicts of interest that may arise in relation to allegations of child sexual abuse, which expressly covers: members of professional standards bodies, members of diocesan councils (otherwise known as bishop-in-council or standing committee of synod), members of the Standing Committee of the General Synod, and chancellors and legal advisers for dioceses.”
The report also says that the province’s “Being Together” policy, which sets out “expectations of behaviour in our church community,” should be amended “to expressly refer to the importance of child safety.”
There should be “a national approach to the selection, screening and training of candidates for ordination in the Anglican Church”; and “each diocese should implement mandatory national standards to ensure that all people in religious or pastoral ministry (bishops, clergy, religious and lay personnel): undertake mandatory, regular professional development” with “compulsory components” covering “professional responsibility and boundaries, ethics in ministry and child safety.” Such people should also “undertake mandatory professional/pastoral supervision” and “undergo regular performance appraisals.”
The report makes 26 recommendations to the Roman Catholic Church, including that representations be made to the Holy See for changes to canon law (church law) to introduce a range of new offences and changes to the procedures adopted in pursuing offences under ecclesiastical law.
On the seal of the confessional—an area of controversy amongst some Christians —the report recommends: “The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should consult with the Holy See, and make public any advice received, in order to clarify whether information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession” and “if a person confesses during the sacrament of reconciliation to perpetrating child sexual abuse, absolution can and should be withheld until they report themselves to civil authorities.”
Regardless of any advice received from the Vatican, the commission, in its criminal justice section, recommends a new offence of “failure to report.” The offence would be committed if “an owner, manager, staff member or volunteer of a relevant institution”—including persons in religious ministry and other officers or personnel of religious institutions—“fails to report to police in circumstances where they know, suspect, or should have suspected (on the basis that a reasonable person in their circumstances would have suspected and it was criminally negligent for the person not to suspect), that an adult associated with the institution was sexually abusing or had sexually abused a child.”
According to the report, “Relevant institutions should be defined to include institutions that operate facilities or provide services to children in circumstances where the children are in the care, supervision or control of the institution,” and says that “facilities and services provided by religious institutions, and any services or functions performed by persons in religious ministry, should be included.”
The report goes further, and says that legislation introducing the Failure to Report offence “should apply in relation to knowledge gained or suspicions that are or should have been formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession.” And that “any existing excuse, protection or privilege in relation to religious confessions” should be excluded “to the extent necessary to achieve this objective.”
In his response to the report, Archbishop Philip Freier said: “The Anglican Church has worked assiduously since 2004 to make the church a safe place for all—especially for children—and we have made great strides, often in response to recommendations from the Royal Commission. But we admit that sometimes we have been slow to grasp the extent or severity of abuse, and that without the work of the Royal Commission we would not have been able to achieve this.
“There has been a change in the wider culture of the Anglican Church about child abuse as all elements of the church have had to face our failures—a change that, again, was largely due to the Royal Commission and the Church’s response.
“The three-yearly General Synod or national assembly, which met in Queensland in September, introduced for the first time binding national standards on child protection for all clergy and church workers, including independent audits. It also set up mechanisms by which the Church can join a future Commonwealth [of Australia] redress scheme (as recommended by the Royal Commission), and acted to make past and present bishops more accountable.
“The work of making the Church a safe place is never finished and cannot be taken for granted. We will engage with the final report released today to improve our systems, protocols and procedures.”
The Church of Australia is just one province of the Anglican Communion whose responses to child sexual abuse has been, or is being, investigated by national independent inquiries. The Church of England and the Church in Wales are, together, the focus of an “Anglican Church” case study by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse set up by the British government. Substantive hearings in that strand of the inquiry are expected to take place next spring.