Each year hundreds of thousands of children and young people in Victoria spend time involved with religious and other non-government organisations. These organisations provide a broad range of valuable services and social programs including child care, education, social activities, spiritual guidance and sports and recreation programs. Some organisations also provide temporary or permanent residential care away from the family.
The overwhelming majority of children who participate in organisational activities or who are cared for by personnel in non-government organisations are safe and they gain great benefit from engaging in such activities and services.
Given children’s vulnerability and dependence on adults, however, there will always be a degree of risk of them being criminally abused by employees or others associated with non-government organisations. The community now acknowledges the incidence of criminal abuse over many years in some of society’s most trusted and respected institutions and organisations.
The criminal abuse of children represents a departure of the gravest kind from the standards of decency fundamental to any civilised society. Although our society has understood this for a long time, we have not given enough attention to the need to take adequate protective measures to prevent it.
The experience of criminal child abuse has profound and lifelong consequences for the physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing of victims. For parents of children abused in the care of trusted organisations, it is a betrayal beyond comprehension.
Community outrage at the occurrence of criminal child abuse in organisations has led to the establishment of public inquiries internationally, nationally and in Victoria. Notably in Australia, religious organisations have generally been overlooked in these inquiries. In addition, religious organisations in Victoria have generally not initiated internal reviews to determine the extent of criminal child abuse and how their systems and processes may have contributed to its occurrence.
Religious organisations are among the most revered and trusted institutions in society. Internationally, the exposure of systemic child abuse in religious organisations has called into question this trust and the integrity of some of these organisations. The Catholic Church, in particular, has been at the centre of a worldwide scandal.
The 2012 Cummins Inquiry identified concerns regarding the handling of criminal child abuse in religious organisations in Victoria, and recommended that:
A formal investigation should be conducted into the processes by which religious organisations respond to the criminal abuse of children by religious personnel within their organisations.
In response to this recommendation and through the Governor in Council, the Victorian Government requested that the joint investigatory Family and Community Development Committee undertake an inquiry into these processes. Members of Parliament from multiple political parties and both Houses of Parliament comprise the Committee.
In establishing this Inquiry, the Government requested the Committee inquire into responses to criminal child abuse by all non-government organisations that interact directly with children. In addition to its primary focus on religious organisations, the Committee has considered recreational, sporting, childcare, education, community and other child-related services and activities operated by non-government organisations.