MANDATORY reporting of child abuse should be extended to members of the clergy, the South West Centre Against Sexual Assault (SWCASA) says.
The suggestion is made in the centre’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry into the handling of child abuse by churches and other organisations.
“This legal requirement should transcend any current theological privileges,” the centre’s co-ordinator Helen Wilson states in the submission.
SWCASA provides sexual assault counselling and support to victims in the Warrnambool, Corangamite, Glenelg, Moyne and Southern Grampians areas.
Its staff have worked with victims of abuse by people involved in religious and other non-government organisations.
“The sentencing of Father Gerald Ridsdale in Warrnambool in 1994 for multiple counts of sexual assault crimes remains a landmark case in the recognition of the extent of child sexual abuse,” Ms Wilson says.
Ridsdale, a Catholic priest, served in parishes across the Ballarat diocese including Warrnambool and Mortlake.
He faced court on 93 child sex charges at three separate hearings in 1993, 1994 and 2006 and was jailed on each occasion. He is eligible to apply for parole next year when he will be 79.
Victoria Police is now investigating at least 40 suicides, including some south-west men, who were among Ridsdale’s victims.
SWCASA’s submission to the inquiry also calls for churches and other organisations to have clear directions for people wanting to complain about being abused.
Ms Wilson says victims in the 30-year period from 1970 to 2000 found a number of barriers in their attempts to report the incidents.
They include the “mystique” of the clergy, a lack of clear pathways to report abuse and the process of moving priests to another position as complaints were raised with the church. Ms Wilson says people who were abused by the clergy can find it difficult to obtain information on how to make a complaint within the church, with Catholic church web pages providing no search results for the words “sexual assault”.
The same search on the Uniting Church website leads indirectly to procedures followed by that church.
SWCASA acknowledges there have been significant changes within many organisations that ensure a fairer response to allegations.
“Nevertheless, there have still been examples of victims being referred for assistance to organisations affiliated with the organisation in which the alleged assault occurred.”
Ms Wilson says this could give the impression there is a lack of transparency. She suggests victims should be referred to alternative organisations for independent assistance.
Submissions to the inquiry were released on Wednesday and it will hold its first public hearings in Melbourne next Friday and on Monday, October 22.
Help for victims is available through the Victims of Crime help line on 1800 819 817.