Mar 12, 2017

Uniting church has faced 2,500 reports of child sexual abuse, royal commission hears

Angus Stewart, SC, addresses the opening day of the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse public hearing into the Uniting Church on Friday.
Christopher Knaus and Australian Associated Press
The Guardian
March 10, 2017

The Uniting church has been subject to about 2,500 allegations of child sexual abuse in its 40-year history, the royal commission has heard.

The child abuse royal commission also heard that there were 1,006 alleged perpetrators of abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the congregation did not report a single one to police.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the inquiry heard, were still refusing to change a second century biblical rule requiring two witnesses to prove wrongdoing.

The royal commission returned to its examination of the Uniting church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses on Friday, seeking to understand how each had reformed its handling of child protection and abuse complaints.

Counsel assisting, Angus Stewart, SC, said the royal commission had analysed data provided by the Uniting church on 2,504 child abuse complaints since 1977.

Of those allegations, 133 related to abuse that occurred in places of worship.

The church had paid out about $17.5m to survivors, and had been the subject of 255 civil claims, Stewart said.

The royal commission is exploring how the church’s complicated structure is affecting its ability to have consistent child protection measures and complaint handling mechanisms.

The Uniting church has 1,065,000 members, making it the third largest Christian denomination in Australia.

It has 40,000 employees and 30,000 volunteers, and runs 64 schools and 179 agencies providing services to children, youth, or the broader community.

It is governed by a series of non-hierarchical councils, including the assembly, known as the national council, and state and territory synods, regional presbyteries, and individual congregations.

The national assembly develops and promotes child safety policy and codes of conduct, but each of the various councils are responsible for implementing them.

The church has developed a national child safe policy framework, which is modelled on recommendations from the royal commission. That framework was approved last weekend.

The royal commission chair, Justice Peter McClellan, asked whether the church had used its considerable following to influence the federal government on implementing a national redress scheme.

The Uniting church president, Stuart McMillan, said churches had far less influence than they did in the 1950s and 60s. But McMillan said the church was helping to encourage governments to commit to the scheme.

“We’re certainly doing that your honour, I have facilitated meetings of our ecumenical partners to have conversations about redress and about redress schemes,” McMillan said.

“We had a meeting with the commonwealth only in January to talk about matters that needed to be explored if they are going to go ahead with the scheme,” he said.

“There’s certainly goodwill on the part of churches on this matter.”

Earlier, the royal commission heard evidence about the extent of abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It heard there were at least 1,008 survivors of alleged abuse, and 579 Jehovah’s Witnesses members confessed.

About 400 alleged perpetrators were expelled from the congregation, and 230 later reinstated. The royal commission reported 514 perpetrators to police.

It also heard victims were still shunned if they left the organisation.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia consider that they are prohibited by scripture from altering the application of a two-witness rule that applies in all cases of complaints of wrongdoing, the royal commission heard.

The commission found the organisation wrongly relied on that rule in the context of child sexual abuse, saying complainants were subject to ongoing traumatisation if their allegation wasn’t corroborated by a confession by their abuser or a second “credible” eyewitness.

Stewart said the Jehovah’s Witnesses had failed to address many of the inquiry’s recommendations, including that they revise or modify the application of that rule.

He said the organisation had also failed to address the particularly devastating practice of shunning victims who disassociated from the Jehovah’s Witnesses because their abuser remained in the congregation, while maintaining it was not a policy.

The commission found the Jehovah’s Witnesses did not respond adequately to child sexual abuse complaints and did not adequately protect children from the risk of being abused.

But senior members of the Australian church dispute the commission’s finding that the organisation has a general practice of not reporting child sexual abuse allegations to police or authorities unless required to do so by law.

“We have never had a practice of not reporting,” Jehovah’s Witness Australian branch committee member Terrence O’Brien told the commission on Friday.

O’Brien said hundreds were reported, although not by the organisation because it was left to the elders handling the case or the parents.

The commission heard the Jehovah’s Witnesses had referred 15 of 17 child abuse allegations to police that had arisen since the commission hearings, noting that in two cases the adult survivors did not want it reported.

Rodney Spinks, who advises church elders on how to handle child sexual abuse cases, said victims or their parents were told they had the absolute right to report abuse to authorities and that the elders would fully support them.

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