Date: 
Wednesday 29 August 2018

Author

Megan.Mitchell

 

Introduction

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to elders past, present and future.

Many thanks to all of you for the chance to talk about the work I’ve been leading, with the support of the Commonwealth Department of Social Services, on developing National Principles for Child Safe Organisations.

As you might know, this work has stemmed out of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It also falls under the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children, which runs until 2020.

Today I would like to talk about:

  • The Royal Commission’s recommendations.
  • The connection between those recommendations and the National Principles.
  • Work we’re doing at the Australian Human Rights Commission in the Child Safe Organisations project.
  • How religious organisations can implement the National Principles.
  • Government responses to the Royal Commission’s recommendations and recent developments at the national level.

I am also keen to hear from you about:

  • your work safeguarding children
  • your progress with implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendations
  • challenges you’re facing with implementation, and
  • how we might be able to work together moving forward.

First though, I would like to tell you briefly about the Australian Human Rights Commission and the role of the National Children’s Commissioner.

Background: National Children’s Commissioner role

The Australian Human Rights Commission is Australia’s national human rights institution. It was set up by federal legislation in 1986, at that time called the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The Commission is an independent statutory organisation. We report to federal parliament through the Attorney-General.

The role of Australia’s first National Children’s Commissioner was created by the Australian Government in 2013, and I have filled the role since then.

The functions of the National Children’s Commissioner include:

  • Promoting discussion and awareness of children’s rights.
  • Undertaking research, educational and other programs that promote respect for children’s rights.
  • Assessing whether laws, bills and policies protect children’s rights.
  • Reporting to the federal Attorney-General on children’s rights in Australia.

The main guiding document for my work is the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which Australia has been a party to for more than 25 years.

The CRC covers a broad spectrum of children’s rights. One of them is children’s right to safety, and to be protected from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents or anyone else who looks after them.

The CRC is underpinned by four guiding principles:

  • children’s right to survival and development
  • non-discrimination
  • the best interests of the child, and
  • children’s right to participate in decisions that affect them.

Through my work, I often consult with Commonwealth, state and territory ministers and officials, and a wide range of non-government organisations, academics and experts. Perhaps most importantly, I spend as much time as I can speaking with children and young people about what matters to them.

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse

Two things I often hear from children and young people when we talk about their safety and wellbeing in organisational settings, are that:

  • They want to be able to have say.
  • They expect adults not just to listen to them, but to take action when they know something is not right.

These themes also resonated throughout much of the Royal Commission’s work – unfortunately, in many cases children were not listened to when they tried to speak out. And as we know, many adults failed to act in the ways they should have when abuse came to light.

I was closely involved with the Royal Commission’s work, particularly those aspects that focused on prevention of institutional child abuse in the future.

The Australian Human Rights Commission also made submissions to the Royal Commission on working with children’s checks, child safe organisations, redress and complaint handling.

The Royal Commission’s recommendations to religious institutions

As you know, child sexual abuse in religious institutions was a significant focus of the Royal Commission’s work. More than half of the people who attended private sessions spoke about abuse in religious institutions.[1]

This was clearly not a case of ‘a few bad apples’. To quote the Royal Commission:

“More than 4,000 survivors told us in private sessions that they were sexually abused as children in religious institutions. The abuse occurred in religious schools, orphanages and missions, churches, presbyteries and rectories, confessionals, and various other settings. In private sessions we heard about child sexual abuse occurring in 1,691 different religious institutions. The sexual abuse took many forms, including rape. It was often accompanied by physical or emotional abuse. Most victims were aged between 10 and 14 years when the abuse first started. We heard about perpetrators including priests, religious brothers and sisters, ministers, church elders, teachers in religious schools, workers in residential institutions, youth group leaders and others.”[2]

Much of this abuse took place in previous decades, but this is not just a problem from the past. Child abuse still takes place in many forms and in many contexts today.

More than 200 people told the Royal Commission they had experienced child sexual abuse in a religious institution in Australia from 1990 onwards.[3] The actual number of recent victims is likely to be much higher. Accurate figures are difficult to establish because many people who experience child sexual abuse don’t report it for years – the average delay among those who attended private sessions with the Royal Commission was almost 24 years.[4]

Many of you now work with institutions that were, in one way or another, examined by the Royal Commission. Those institutions may have been the subject of findings in case studies or recommendations in the religious institutions volume of the final report, Volume 16.

As you would know, Volume 16 addresses particular recommendations to the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jewish institutions.

Volume 16 also makes recommendations to religious institutions more broadly. I’m sure you’re well aware of them, so I won’t go into detail. But it’s important to emphasise that those recommendations apply to all religious institutions in Australia, not just the ones examined in Royal Commission case studies.

The Royal Commission identified some common themes across religious institutions in terms of the abuse that took place and the failures in institutional responses. These will be important factors for religious institutions to address when implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendations and the National Principles.

Some of those common themes included, to paraphrase the Royal Commission:

  • Children from religious families who didn’t know that what they were being subjected to was sexual abuse, because they hadn’t received appropriate sex education.
  • Children who felt that the abuse they experienced at the hands of a priest or another person in religious ministry was akin to being abused by God.
  • Children who were too scared to disclose abuse because the perpetrator was a religious figure highly respected by the community and they were scared that no one would believe them; they feared they would go to hell (sometimes because the perpetrator told them that); or they feared being shunned by their religious community.
  • Children who did disclose sexual abuse and were not believed by people in authority in religious institutions, and children who were punished or further abused because they had disclosed.
  • Internal governance structures, laws or rules in religious institutions that inhibited appropriate responses to abuse.
  • Religious leaders who failed to acknowledge the seriousness of abuse, failed to prioritise children over perpetrators, failed to report perpetrators to police, and in some cases acted in ways that shielded perpetrators. In doing so, they contributed to institutional cultures of silence, in which the reputation of the institution was prioritised over victims.[5]

The Royal Commission acknowledged that ‘these failures are not confined to religious institutions’.[6] However, religious institutions often play a unique role in families’ lives. The degree of faith placed in religious institutions and the high status of people in religious ministry has often meant that parents have unquestioningly trusted them with their children’s safety and wellbeing. In the words of the Royal Commission:

“[Religious institutions] have been among the most respected institutions in our society. The perpetrators of child sexual abuse in religious institutions were, in many cases, people that children and parents trusted the most and suspected the least.”[7]

With the unique role that religious institutions play comes a heightened responsibility to ensure that the institution’s interactions with children always prioritise their safety and wellbeing. This requires leaders who always put the best interests of children above other considerations. It also requires that institutional governance mechanisms are designed to ensure children’s safety and wellbeing, and that there is an ongoing focus on ensuring that children’s views are sought and listened to.

The Royal Commission’s ‘child safe’ recommendations

As well as examining abuse that had already taken place, the Royal Commission’s Terms of Reference asked that it consider ‘what institutions and governments should do to better protect children against child sexual abuse and related matters in institutional contexts in the future’.[8]

The Royal Commission drew from research, consultations, submissions and case studies to develop a framework containing ten elements designed to make institutions ‘child safe’. These are referred to as the Child Safe Standards. They are included in Volume 6 of the final report.[9]

The Royal Commission recommended that the Child Safe Standards should be mandatory for institutions that engage in child-related work. The Royal Commission also recommended that:

  • A new National Office, to eventually be auspiced by an independent statutory agency, should evaluate, publicly report on and drive continuous improvement of the implementation of the child safe standards, and coordinate national capacity building and support initiatives.
  • State and territory governments should ensure that an independent oversight body in each state and territory is responsible for monitoring and enforcing the child safe standards, along with providing information, advice and capacity building to institutions and the community.[10]

The Royal Commission acknowledged that child safe frameworks must have a broader application than the prevention of sexual abuse alone. They should guide organisations in how to prevent, identify and improve responses to physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse and neglect of children.

Child safe frameworks should also help organisations to ensure children’s wellbeing more broadly.

National Principles for Child Safe Organisations

That brings me to the connection between the Royal Commission’s recommendations and our work.

The Royal Commission recommended that its Child Safe Standards be adopted as part of a National Statement of Principles for Child Safe Organisations, and that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorse the National Principles.

I have been leading the development of the National Principles, in partnership with the Commonwealth Department of Social Services.

The National Principles are based on the Royal Commission’s Child Safe Standards, with a broader scope that goes beyond sexual abuse to cover other forms of harm. They are grounded in a child rights approach, which recognises children and young people as active participants rather than passive onlookers.

Since late last year, we have refined the draft National Principles through consultations with various sectors, advocacy groups, academics and Commonwealth, state and territory government officials.

We established two advisory groups to assist with those consultations, one of which included the National Council of Churches in Australia as a member.

I have also consulted with children and young people about what makes them feel safe and included in organisational settings. They have told me about the importance of being treated with respect and dignity, the criticality of feeling welcome and a sense of belonging, how organisations should be more genuine, responsible and responsive, and how unfairness should be addressed.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the strongest themes I hear from children and young people is that they want their voices and views to be heard by adults.

The draft National Principles are currently en-route to COAG for their consideration, and hopefully endorsement, later in the year.

Once the National Principles are finalised, they will drive the implementation of a child safe culture in all organisations across Australia that engage with children and young people. They will be relevant to organisations of different sizes and across all sectors, from volunteer-run playgroups to local sporting clubs, child care centres, schools, churches and more.

Obviously, religious organisations provide a wide range of services and activities to children across Australia – from Sunday schools and youth groups, to religious schools, to health and welfare services. The National Principles will apply to all of these settings.

So, what do the National Principles say?

  • The first four principles emphasise getting the organisational culture right, including committed leadership and appropriate governance mechanisms. They focus on children learning about their rights and being empowered to speak out, addressing children’s diverse needs, and informing and involving families.
  • Principles 5, 6 and 7 are about the organisation’s processes for recruiting, training and supporting staff and dealing with concerns, complaints and incidents.
  • Principle 8 focuses on managing risks to children in physical and online environments.
  • The final two principles focus on the need for current, accessible child safety and wellbeing policies and procedures, and the need for them to be regularly reviewed and improved.

Child Safe Organisations project

The National Principles are at the heart of the Child Safe Organisations project at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

We’re busy developing practical tools and resources to help organisations implement the National Principles. Initially, these will include:

  • A Child Safe Organisations website.
  • Online training modules that will take people through the ten National Principles in an interactive way.
  • A self-assessment tool which will help organisations consider their current child safe practices and areas for improvement.
  • A template that organisations can use to develop a Charter of Commitment to children and young people. This would be developed in consultation with children and young people in the organisation.
  • An example Code of Conduct that organisations can adapt to set out expected standards of behaviour when engaging with children and young people.
  • A template that organisations can use to develop a Child Safety and Wellbeing Policy that addresses the ten National Principles.
  • An online safety checklist for organisations that we are developing in partnership with the Office of the e-Safety Commissioner.

We are hoping to develop further tools for organisations over time. We have also developed a guide for parents and carers, which will help them consider whether an organisation is child safe.

How can religious organisations implement the National Principles?

Our hope is that the National Principles will be endorsed by COAG later this year and after that we will be able to make the practical tools freely available on the website for all organisations to use.

Once that happens, a good starting point for some of you will be the organisational self-assessment tool, which will help you reflect on your organisation’s current practices, identify priority areas in need of improvement, and commit to timeframes and actions moving forward.

In the meantime, the draft National Principles provide guidance to organisations on implementation. The principles are accompanied by key action areas and indicators that will help you envisage what compliance with each principle might look like in practice.

The Royal Commission’s final report is also a helpful resource. Volume 16 includes Part E on creating child safe religious institutions and how religious institutions can implement the Child Safe Standards – which are now reflected in the National Principles.[11]

Part E makes a range of recommendations, including that:

  • All religious institutions in Australia should implement the Child Safe Standards.
  • Religious organisations should adopt the Child Safe Standards as nationally mandated standards for each of their affiliated institutions across Australia and drive consistent implementation of the standards in those institutions.
  • Religious organisations should work with relevant state and territory oversight bodies to support implementation of and compliance with the Child Safe Standards in each of their affiliated institutions.[12]

Hopefully each of your churches is well advanced with starting to implement the Royal Commission’s recommendations to religious institutions, as well as the cross-cutting recommendations that apply to all institutions.

As you go through this process, I encourage you to use the draft National Principles as a guiding framework. The principles are high level. You will need to do the work of translating them into your organisational setting. That means considering the types of services you provide to children, the diverse backgrounds and needs of those children, the activities they are involved in, the adults who run these activities, the locations they take place in and so on.

It also means considering the particular risk factors that might arise in your organisation’s engagement with children. You might already have a good understanding of those risks. But I would encourage you to go back to Volume 16 of the Royal Commission’s final report and reflect on the common themes across religious institutions, some of which may be relevant in your organisation today.[13]

Each of your organisations is most likely at a different stage of implementing child safe measures, and I’m aware that there has been significant progress in recent years in some religious institutions. But even if you are well progressed, there is always a need for ongoing monitoring, review and improvement. This will be an ongoing conversation, not a quick fix.

I’d like to make two quick points about that ongoing conversation:

  • First – it needs to involve all levels of the organisation. The whole organisation – from the top down and bottom up – needs to go on a child safety journey to achieve genuine and lasting change.
  • Second – this conversation needs to involve children and young people, not just staff and not just adults. This will need to be done using culturally appropriate and age appropriate strategies to seek and listen to the views of children and young people; to allow them to take part in decision-making; to inform them about their rights; and to empower them to raise concerns when something is wrong.

Recent developments and what comes next?

As you would know, the Australian Government provided its response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations on 13 June. There are too many aspects of it to go into detail today. But no doubt you are aware of progress with the national redress scheme and plans for a national apology to victims and survivors of institutional child sexual abuse.

Each state and territory government has also now issued a formal response.

As part of the Australian Government’s response, it created a new National Office for Child Safety within the Department of Social Services. One role of the National Office will be leading national coordination and implementation of the National Principles, working with us and with states and territories and the non-government sector.

In terms of what happens next – two questions I often hear relate to governance or compliance mechanisms for the National Principles, and public reporting.

First, governance and compliance.

I understand that the Royal Commission Implementation Taskforce led by the Attorney-General's Department is working closely with state and territory governments and the National Office for Child Safety to consider governance and compliance mechanisms. We are still ‘watching this space’ and we hope to hear further details soon.

A few quick points to note:

  • The Australian Government has indicated that Australian Government agencies working with children will be required to adopt the National Principles within 12 months of COAG endorsement.[14] We are also aware that the principles are to be incorporated into relevant contractual arrangements with agencies receiving Commonwealth funding.
  • The Australian Government has indicated that it supports the Royal Commission’s recommendation that state and territory governments should require institutions that engage in child-related work to meet the Child Safe Standards. It has noted as a matter for state and territory governments the recommendation that each state and territory should have an independent oversight body responsible for monitoring and enforcing the standards.[15]
  • That leaves implementation of those recommendations up to the states and territories. NSW has, for example, indicated that it is committed to implementing child safe standards with independent oversight by the Office of the Children’s Guardian. It will ‘undertake further work and consultation to consider the best way to ensure child-related organisations meet the Child Safe Standards’ and report further in December.[16]

In some cases, if organisations are already implementing state based child safe standards, they will be well on the way to implementing the National Principles. And of course, organisations will still need to adhere to existing legal requirements, for example working with children checks.

Second, public reporting.

The Royal Commission recommended that major institutions and peak bodies of institutions that engage in child-related work should prepare five consecutive annual reports on their implementation of Royal Commission recommendations, which should go to and be made public by the National Office for Child Safety. The first of those reports is due in December.

At a minimum, the institutions reporting are to include those that appeared at the Royal Commission’s institutional review hearings.[17] As you would know, this includes the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, The Salvation Army, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Australian Christian Churches and affiliated Pentecostal churches, Yeshiva Bondi and Yeshivah Melbourne, and the Uniting Church.[18]

The Australian Government has said it will report on its progress in December each year for the next five years and will also conduct a comprehensive review after 10 years. It has also said the following:

“Our expectation is that other governments and institutions will respond to each of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, indicating what action they will take in response to them and will report on their implementation of relevant recommendations annually in December, along with the Australian, state and territory governments. Where other governments and institutions decide not to accept the Royal Commission’s recommendations they should state so and why.”[19]

Again, we’re ‘watching this space’. I understand that the Royal Commission Implementation Taskforce will coordinate reporting by governments and the National Office for Child Safety will coordinate reporting by non-government institutions. I also understand that the National Office is working with the Taskforce to develop a framework to assist organisations with the reporting process and to ensure that government and non-government reporting are aligned.

Conclusion

Thank you for having me here to speak with you today. I hope we’ll be able to work together moving forward. I’m keen to hear from you about your work and your challenges in this area. I’m also very happy to answer any questions you might have.


[1] As of 31 May 2017, 6,875 survivors had attended private sessions with the Royal Commission, 4,029 of whom (or 58.6 per cent) spoke about child sexual abuse in religious institutions. See Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 1, page 13.

[2] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 1, page 11.

[3] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 1, page 12.

[4] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 1, page 25.

[5] See eg Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 3, Chapter 19; Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 1, Chapter 9.

[6] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 1, page 11.

[7] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 1, page 11.

[8] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Letters Patent (Cth), (a).

[9] See Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Making institutions child safe (2017), Volume 6, recommendations 6.5, 6.6.

[10] See Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Making institutions child safe (2017), Volume 6, recommendations 6.8-6.11, 6.13, 6.14, 6.16, 6.17.

[11] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 3, Part E.

[12] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 3, Chapter 20.

[13] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 3, Chapter 19; Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 1, Chapter 9.

[14] Australian Government, Australian Government Response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Part One: Final Report Response (June 2018), page 3. At https://www.ag.gov.au/RightsAndProtections/Australian-Government-Response-to-the-Royal-Commission-into-Institutional-Responses-to-Child-Sexual-Abuse/Documents/part-one-response.pdf (viewed 14 August 2018).

[15] Australian Government, Australian Government Response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Part One: Final Report Response (June 2018), pages 7-8. At https://www.ag.gov.au/RightsAndProtections/Australian-Government-Response-to-the-Royal-Commission-into-Institutional-Responses-to-Child-Sexual-Abuse/Documents/part-one-response.pdf (viewed 14 August 2018).

[16] NSW Government, NSW Government Response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (June 2018), pages 9-10. At https://static.nsw.gov.au/nsw-gov-au/1529890786/NSW-Government-response-to-the-Royal-Commission-into-Institutional-Responses-to-Child-Sexual-Abuse-June-2018.pdf.pdf (viewed 14 August 2018).

[17] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Beyond the Royal Commission (2017), Volume 17, recommendation 17.3.

[18] Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report: Religious institutions (2017), Volume 16, Book 1, page 71.

[19] Australian Government, Australian Government Response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Introduction (June 2018), page vi. At https://www.ag.gov.au/RightsAndProtections/Australian-Government-Response-to-the-Royal-Commission-into-Institutional-Responses-to-Child-Sexual-Abuse/Documents/australian-government-response-introduction.pdf (viewed 14 August 2018).