SA-BEST introduces a Bill to close a loophole on mandatory reporting of child abuse by priests

13 May 2020

A loophole in legislation which could undermine mandatory notification requirements for priests who hear confessions of child abuse to report the matter to police will be closed under a Private Member’s Bill introduced in Parliament today by SA-BEST. 

SA-BEST MLC Connie Bonaros will today introduce the Statutes Amendment (Mandatory Reporting) Bill 2020 which seeks to toughen legislation passed in 2017 - and which come into effect in late 2018. 

Under current laws – first instigated by Nick Xenophon in 2003 - priests who hear confessions about child abuse have a mandatory obligation to report the matter to police. 

This saw South Australia become the first state in Australia to adopt a specific recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse to remove the exemption from mandatory reporting for priests hearing confession. 

However, the current legislation includes an “escape clause” provision where the government of the day - if it so chose - could make changes to regulations to remove a priest’s requirement to mandatory report confessions of child abuse to authorities. 

Connie’s Bill closes that loophole and also makes it a criminal offence punishable by a maximum of five years imprisonment for a priest who fails to report certain child sexual offences including murder, rape, use of children in commercial sexual services, incest and child exploitation material and related offences. 

“It beggars belief the exemption was part of the original legislation in the first place, so SA-BEST will introduce a Bill to close the loophole as soon as possible so that priests cannot be exempted now or in the future,” Connie said. 

“In many instances, priests of all denominations are at the ‘front line’ of child abuse reports, so it makes perfect sense there is a compulsory requirement for them to report to police acts of child abuse that they hear at confession,” she said. 

“Given the Catholic Church’s steadfast refusal to support the Royal Commission’s recommendation to lift the seal of confession - despite a tsunami of community outrage and disgust - it is critical the potential ‘escape clause’ provided by the regulation is permanently shut. 

“As a community, we simply and morally cannot allow a possible exception for priests to avoid the obligation to report suspicions of child abuse made at confession. 

“The Catholic Church in Adelaide continues to refuse to obey the law with respect to the confessional and seeks to place the Church’s Canon Law above all else - including the welfare of children. 

“By their very nature, churches of all denominations are powerful organisations whose power and might cannot be underestimated in seeking to lobby this government - or future governments for that matter - to exploit the current regulation loophole to make their priests exempt from mandatory reporting confessions of child abuse.” 

Connie sited as an example for tightening the loophole, the insidious case of notorious paedophile priest, Father Michael McArdle. 

McArdle admitted in confession to child abuse on more than 1500 occasions. He made an affidavit in 2004 stating he had confessed 1500 times to molesting children to 30 different priests over a 25-year period – with none of the priests reporting him to police. 

He was jailed for six years in 2004 after pleading guilty to indecently dealing with two girls and 14 boys, aged eight to 13, between January 1965 and June 1987. 

“McArdle’s reign of terror on some many young innocent victims over such a protracted period of time is an outrage of the most horrific kind – the likes of which this country has rarely seen,” Connie said. 

“His sickness is a prime example for lifting the veil of secrecy of the confessional and highlights the crucial need for priests to be told by senior leaders they should report crimes to authorities,” she said. 

“McArdle told no less than 30 different priests of his insidious offending, yet not one chose to break ranks, not one chose to protect children over the church. 

“But appallingly, every single one of the priests McCardle confessed to would have known he would continue his offending - which beggars the question: why was he given absolution? 

“After each confession, this sick monster said: ‘it was like a magic wand had been waved over me’. 

“If only a magic wand could be waved over the abuse and suffering he caused to his victims. 

“If his crimes had been reported, so many children would have been saved from a lifetime of pain and suffering. 

“It’s enough to make any normal human’s skin crawl. 

“As a society, we must do everything in our powers to stop this protection racket – and in doing so, protect some of the most vulnerable people in the community, our children. 

“Too many abusers, for far too long, have escaped punishment due to their ability to hide behind the sanctity of the confessional. 

“That must end now – and the legislation I will introduce will ensure that happens no matter who is in government and however powerful the groups are that lobby them.”

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