Priests would face charges if they fail to report child sex abuse they heard about through a confession, if recommendations made by the Sex Abuse Royal Commission are adopted.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released 85 recommendations aimed at reforming the Australian criminal justice system in what it says will provide a fairer response to victims of institutional child sexual abuse.
The report Criminal Justice recommends a sweep of legislative and policy changes including reform to police and prosecution responses, evidence of complainants, sentences and appeals, and grooming offences.
It also recommends new offences, including 'failure to report' and 'failure to protect', and includes recommendations such as failing to report child sexual abuse in institutions, including if its given in religious confessions, a criminal offence.
Among the recommendations are offences including:
Grooming children and those around them
- Laws should be introduced or amended to adopt a broad grooming offence that captures any communication or conduct with a child with the intention of grooming the child to be involved in a sexual offence.
- Governments should introduce laws to extend their grooming offences to the grooming of persons other than the child, such as a parent or carer.
Failure to report and the religious confessional
- The report recommends making failure to report child sexual abuse in institutions a criminal offence — including information given in religious confessions. Clergy should not be able to refuse to report because the information was received during confession.
- Persons in institutions should report if they know, suspect or should have suspected a child is being or has been sexually abused.
- The report recommends there be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offence granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in connection with a religious confession.
Failure to protect a child within an institution
- Failure to protect a child within an institution from a substantial risk of sexual abuse by an adult associated with the institution should be made a criminal offence.
- All states and territories should introduce a failure to protect offence. The legislation already introduced in Victoria provides a useful precedent.
"There should be no exemption or privilege from the failure to report offence for clergy who receive information during religious confession that an adult associated with the institution is sexually abusing or had sexually abused a child," the report said.
The proposal is among 85 recommended changes to the criminal justice system made in the report.
"Child sexual abuse cases are often 'word against word' cases with no eyewitnesses or medical or scientific evidence. Complainants often take years or decades to disclose their abuse," Royal Commission CEO Philip Reed said in a statement.
The criminal justice system is often seen as not being effective in responding to child sexual abuse cases and conviction rates are lower compared to other crimes, he said.
"Although we have focused on child sexual abuse in institutions, these 85 recommendations are likely to improve responses to child sexual abuse in all contexts," he said.
Reed said the recommendations have been informed by the Royal Commission's public hearings, private sessions, a consultation paper, research and roundtables.
Maurice Blackburn Abuse Law Principal Michelle James said the Commission had made clear that for too long institutions had turned a blind eye to abuse.
"The Royal Commission has rightly identified that the continued failure of institutions to report allegations of abuse or to protect children is unacceptable, and that such failures have let down abuse survivors," she said in a statement.
"It is only right therefore that a failure to report concerns of abuse is met with a criminal offence."
She said a strong message must be sent that such failures are completely out of step with community expectations and the law, with serious consequences for not acting on abuse allegations or concerns.
Royal Commission data released in February showed a total of 1880 perpetrators had been identified as alleged abusers since 1950, amid complaints by 4444 victims made to the Catholic Church between 1980 and February 2015.
In February a report from the commissions showed community misconceptions about child sex abuse can lead to the vilification of parents who have fallen victim to abusers' manipulative grooming techniques.
That report found grooming -- a complex, commonly incremental process -- can involve three main stages: gaining access to the victim, initiating and maintaining the abuse and concealing the abuse.
Since it began its work in 2013, the Royal Commission has referred 2,245 matters to the authorities, including police.