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Social Sector Urges Action in Wake of Royal Commission Findings

18 December 2017 at 1:50 pm
Luke Michael
The social sector has urged Australian institutions to commit to systemic change in wake of the findings from the child sexual abuse royal commission, as concerns are raised around the exemptions to governance standards offered to religious charities.

Luke Michael | 18 December 2017 at 1:50 pm


Social Sector Urges Action in Wake of Royal Commission Findings
18 December 2017 at 1:50 pm

The social sector has urged Australian institutions to commit to systemic change in wake of the findings from the child sexual abuse royal commission, as concerns are raised around the exemptions to governance standards offered to religious charities.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its 17-volume final report on Friday, which contained 189 new recommendations to better prevent and respond to future instances of abuse.

The main recommendations included the establishment of a National Office for Child Safety, a change in law requiring religious ministers to report abuse offences to church and civil authorities, and the removal of religious ministers convicted of sexual abuse. 

The royal commission noted that poor governance standards in religious institutions and charities were a key driver of abuse.

“Our inquiry has highlighted occasions where governance standards in religious institutions have been inadequate. Accountability and transparency within some institutions has been poor, internal supervision and oversight has been lacking, and internal governance mechanisms have been non-existent or not child focused,” the report said.

“In addition, we note that many religious institutions are exempt from particular governance standards ordinarily imposed on charities by the Australian Charities and Not-for profits Commission (ACNC). Many religious institutions registered with the ACNC fall into a particular class of charity called ‘basic religious charities’ [of which there are] more than 7,000.

“Basic religious charities are exempt from certain obligations ordinarily imposed on charities by the ACNC, including external governance standards like ensuring that there is appropriate accountability to members, and ensuring that people responsible for the charity meet certain duties.”

This means charities are exempt from meeting duties such as acting “with reasonable care and diligence”, acting “honestly in the best interests of the charity and for its purposes” and disclosing “any actual or perceived conflict of interest”.

The royal commission recommended that legislative change to remove these exemptions for religious charities be considered.  

“While we have not consulted widely on this issue, the ACNC may consider whether exemptions to governance standards should still apply to basic religious charities that engage with children where those institutions are subject to our Child Safe Standards,” the report said.

“The ACNC could provide appropriate advice to the Australian government on this issue in due course. We note that any changes to the exemption from external governance standards for basic religious charities would require legislative amendment.”

The social sector has welcomed the royal commission findings, and urged Australian governments and institutions to act swiftly to enact systemic change.

In a statement, Anglicare Australia said: “We will carefully review the commission’s final report and work to incorporate its findings across our services.

“Having fully supported the work of the royal commission, we hope to see an end to the denial and covering up of these inexcusable acts. Such systemic failure to protect the most vulnerable members of our community must never be allowed to happen again.

“We thank the commissioners for the wisdom and compassion they have brought to their work. We especially thank the survivors and their families for sharing their stories and pain to help us all understand what has happened, and what we must do to ensure it never happens again.”

The president of the Blue Knot Foundation, Dr Cathy Kezelman, said both religious and secular institutions needed to step up and prioritise the needs of children and victims.

“The commission has been ground-breaking. It’s critical that we don’t now close the book on its work and the thousands who believed in its processes,” Kezelman said.

“The report has identified fundamental flaws in existing regulatory and compliance mechanisms and notable blocks to justice in our wider legal and justice system. At the very least we need consistency across our criminal and civil litigation jurisdictions so that perpetrators and institutions are brought to account and victims have access to non-re-traumatising civil process.

“The expectations of Australia are on all political parties and if we are to have any faith in our institutions, both religious and secular, they must step up to the plate, show us their mettle and genuinely prioritise the needs of children and victims. This is about delivering hard-fought insights and actions, so compassionately and strategically identified.”

The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare said in a statement that they would use the recommendations from the report to better look after children and young people in their care.

“The centre has had the privilege of working closely with staff at the royal commission to provide advice, submissions and information. Commissioners spoke at forums and events, providing leadership and compelling insight into the experiences of survivors, and the urgent need for cultural change. We thank them.

“In the coming months, the centre will be looking closely at the recommendations and how we can support children, young people, organisations and carers in the future. The work of the commission has shaped our thinking and future actions… we [now] must act.”

Amy Lamoin, the director of policy and advocacy at UNICEF Australia, said the royal commission shone a spotlight on the “ongoing, routine failure of leaders within our institutions to listen to children… at their most vulnerable”.

“Australia and its institutions must therefore commit to change to ensure another inquiry into these issues is not needed in the future,” Lamoin said.

“UNICEF Australia calls on all political parties at state, territory and federal level to show bipartisan support for necessary reforms and the implementation of the royal commission’s recommendations.

“Leading into and following the 2018 election, these recommendations must translate into non-politicised, results-oriented policy change and policy platforms for the protection of children in Australia.”

The royal commission singled out The Salvation Army for their failure to respond appropriately to child sexual abuse victims in their care, which they labelled “appalling”.

“The failure of Salvation Army personnel and leaders to respond appropriately and with compassion when victims had the courage to disclose their experiences of abuse is appalling,” the report said.

“In many instances, despite having in place policies and procedures to deal with the discipline of officers and appropriate conduct in relation to children, The Salvation Army failed to follow them. As a consequence, it failed to protect children in its care.

“We found that The Salvation Army left some alleged perpetrators in positions where they had access to children despite multiple complaints that they had sexually abused children in their care.”

The royal commission believed there were a number of contributing factors to the occurrence and inadequate response to this abuse, underpinned by a concern to preserve the reputation of the organisation.

“Some of these factors were broadly associated with the operation of residential institutions in the period up to the 1990s. This included resourcing constraints that affected both staffing levels and living conditions, impacting the quality of care provided to children. Staff were inadequately trained and complaint handling policies were inadequate or non-existent,” the report said.

“Other contributing factors related to aspects of the organisational culture in which managers of Salvation Army institutions wielded absolute authority over the children in their care. The hierarchical management structure of The Salvation Army contributed to inadequate responses to child sexual abuse.

“Within this organisational culture, children were devalued and often treated harshly.”

In a statement, the Salvation Army’s Lieutenant Colonel Neil Venebles said the organisation acknowledged the report, with “an ongoing commitment to helping and healing the survivors”.

“We will consider further comment early in 2018 following thorough consideration of the royal commission’s final report, including the 189 new recommendations,” Venebles said.

The Truth, Justice and Healing Council (TJHC), which is coordinating the Catholic Church’s response to the royal commission, said the Church must take the recommendations seriously and take action immediately.

“While the release of this report signals the end of the commission, the work on implementing its latest set of recommendations and findings is only now just starting,” TJHC CEO Francis Sullivan said.

“What now needs to be made clear by the Church leadership is that they take these recommendations and findings seriously and that they are willing to act swiftly in implementing the findings.

“The work of rebuilding trust and confidence in the Catholic Church will be hard and will take many years. This report and its findings provide, at the very least, a way in which this can be achieved. It is essential that every element of the Catholic Church in Australia commits to the serious business ahead.”

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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