The Parliament of Western Australia last week passed the Community and Family Services Amendment Bill 2021. This mandates all religious ministers to report child sexual abuse even when it is revealed under the Catholic or Orthodox religious practice of the confession, a divine engagement which has been held sacrosanct for nigh on two millennia.
“There will be no excuse for failing to make a mandatory report because a minister’s belief was based on information disclosed to the minister during a religious confession, or because making the report would otherwise be contrary to the tenets of the minister’s faith or religion,” says a government press release.
The Parliament ignored a 3-2 majority decision arrived at by a Standing Legislative Committee established by the state government. This committee recommended in its Parliamentary Report in September 2020 that disclosures of abuse made in the context of a religious confession should not be subject to the new mandatory reporting laws.
Enabling victims to access the confessional without any hint of interference has proven time and again in the past not only to prevent victims from ending their own lives, but has enabled them to gain sufficient inner strength to approach the statutory authorities, to then engage in what can be torturous legal proceedings, which have in turn led to convictions of perpetrators.
Until now, good has triumphed over evil. But with the passing of this new law, the opposite will happen.
As facilitator of Western Australia’s only peer support network for victims and survivors, and as a survivor of prolonged and extensive childhood sexual abuse, I can say without hesitation that Western Australia’s state government has ripped from society’s grip a significant avenue of hope which today discreetly serves in helping victims to heal, and which also serves to protect children.
No one can deny that horrendous abuses have happened in the past. However, what Premier McGowan’s state government has clearly and repeatedly refused to take into account is that nil consultation was undertaken by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to address contemporary abuse outside of institutions which, it is loosely estimated, makes up 95 percent of childhood sexual abuse in Australia.
Recommendations put forward in the Royal Commission’s final report in late 2017 applied to historical abuse perpetrated upon 5 percent of victims in situations that rarely exist today. So, for local governments to arrogantly ignore the contemporary experience of their majority stakeholders leaves victims to suffer further, and perpetrators to repeatedly relapse.
What is hardest for victims to accept is that new legislation has been passed when Australia is a member of the global alliance We Protect. This alliance brings together experts from government, the private sector and civil society to protect children from sexual exploitation and abuse online. It recently published a 129 percent increase in Australia in reports of child sexual abuse materials discovered online during Covid-19. (Spare a thought for the Philippines which has seen a 265 per cent increase of cases of online sexual abuse and the exploitation of children during Covid-19.)
Western Australia’s new legislation also fails to be trauma-informed in accordance with recommendations made by the Federal Government’s Australian Institute of Family Studies. It is predominantly trauma-reinducing.
The Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Timothy Costelloe, released a Pastoral Letter stating that “little if any attention seems to have been given to the testimony of those survivors of sexual abuse who have spoken of the importance of the confidentiality of the confessional in providing them with a safe place in which to share their stories and seek support and advice.”
The Archbishop explained in his letter how priests effectively support the healing process for victims as a result of the absolute privacy offered through the religious practice of confession, echoing the stories of many victims and survivors who testified so courageously to their state government last year.
With politicians, who are elected and handsomely paid to protect the vulnerable, now passing legislation that adds another layer of betrayal to already complex trauma, victims and survivors will need assurance that, in spite of the law, the confessional remains a safe space where they can engage in the healing process. Hopefully, clergy in Western Australia will reject damaging legislation and continue to stand alongside victims and survivors as priests in Melbourne have done since a similar law was passed in Victoria.
In the name of preventing harm and pursuing justice, Western Australia’s government has achieved the opposite by openly rejecting invaluable insights presented by those with firsthand knowledge of childhood sexual abuse and the wisdom for its solution.
A week after the passing of legislation, Western Australia’s victims are pained, increasingly anxious and suicidal, and are struggling to come to terms with having been wholly ignored.
Their reactions speak loudly as a microcosm of the global family of abuse survivors:
- 18-year-old Australian male: “It feels as though politicians are now attacking me personally when I was the one wronged and hurt as a kid. They don’t seem to want to understand survivors’ pain.”
- 27-year-old Australian male: “If I thought that civil officials might ever knock at my door following my visit to the confessional as a child or adolescent then this would plunge me into the depths of despair. I’d have definitely snapped my neck.”
- 36-year-old Aboriginal male: “For the white man to pass a law which will now make an Aboriginal teenage boy or girl hesitate to first reach out for confidential help away from the Police, which is what the confessional offers, is a crime in itself.”
- 52-year-old Euro-Australian male: “A priest in the confessional strengthened me to go to the police when I was ready to. Police intrusion into minors’ confessions will stop victims from healing and will actually be deeply retraumatising as yet another betrayal.”
- 32-year-old Arab female: “Because the WA government has passed this Bill, [victims] will not be able to speak to anyone and therefore, God forbid, suicide numbers will increase.”
- 35-year-old Australian female: “As a victim of sexual abuse by a family member at age 14, and now working as a schoolteacher, I don’t believe politicians legislating the seal of confession is the right approach. I know it will be extremely detrimental to the healing journey of countless survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and especially of minors.”
- 36-year-old Aboriginal female: “The seal of confession as it presently stands offers the Aboriginal community a desperately needed lifeline. I feel retraumatised by the McGowan government’s new legislation. God help the children!”
- 60-year-old Asian female: “Yes, the government wants to catch perpetrators, but policing the confessional won’t help achieve this. It will only damage those who have been abused and have been left to fight for survival with our childhood secrets.”
Two of these victims are refugees, fleeing to the Lucky Country of Australia to find hope and healing from the ravages of past neglect, abuse, and rape. Some are indigenous, now watching the white man — and the Minister for Child Protection, a white woman — further betray the very fabric of their, and their children’s, souls. Neither is it insignificant that this new law was passed in the same week that commemorates the first anniversary of the suicide of 11-year-old Annaliese Ugle, one of countless suicides by indigenous minors as a result of gross sexual abuse which is barely faced by politicians.
To the one in three women and one in six men who are overcoming the trauma of childhood sexual abuse – and therefore to the estimated half a million survivors being further failed by the state government of Western Australia – your fellow survivors want to assure you that, aside from our politicians, there is hope.
To religious ministers, especially clergy of the Catholic and Orthodox rites, who vociferously safeguard and honour the sacredness of victims’ confessions, and who provide avenues of healing and restoration that politicians either refuse or are unable to understand, know that victims are infinitely grateful to you for your care. Please do not abandon us in our hour of increasing need.
If we are to believe the words of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, then we do not see evil at work, but rather folly – and folly, Bonhoeffer stated, is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil:
There is no defence against folly. Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions. Thus the fool, as compared with the scoundrel, is invariably self-complacent. And he can easily become dangerous, for it does not take much to make him aggressive. Hence folly requires much more cautious handling than evil. We shall never again try to reason with the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous.
The tyrannical reach of Premier Mark McGowan and government ministers in Western Australia goes way beyond the vision of Communist student activist Rudi Dutschke who, in the mid-1960’s, coined the phrase der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen (the long march through the institutions).
The Western Australian Government now knowingly and haughtily engages in its own long march, only this time across the emotional, physical, mental, sexual, and spiritual devastation already subjected in childhood upon the very citizens who recently chose to elect them. A greater abuse of power you could not meet, and a deeper betrayal of lives already crushed you could not imagine.
God, indeed, help the children!