New laws requiring people in religious ministry to report child abuse

Recent changes to Victorian law will mean that people involved in religious ministry will be legally required to report known or suspected child physical or sexual abuse to child protection authorities. This new obligation will be in addition to existing obligations to report to the Commission for Children and Young People under the Reportable Conduct Scheme. Failure to report abuse will be a criminal offence. This includes information obtained during religious confessional.

These new requirements contained in the Children Legislation Amendment Act 2019 are expected to come into force on 17 February 2020 (subject to proclamation).  The changes result from recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 

‘Mandatory reporting’ refers to a legal requirement to report a reasonable belief of actual or likely physical or sexual child abuse to child protection authorities. In general terms, a ‘reasonable belief’ does not require specific evidence or certainty, and can be based on what a child or another person has told a mandatory reporter or what a mandatory reporter has observed themselves (even if somebody else has not specifically told them about the abuse).

There are also changes to the ‘Failure to Disclose’ criminal offence. Any adult, now including an adult in religious ministry, who has information about a sexual offence against a child under 16 years by another adult, must report that information to police or otherwise commits a criminal offence if they fail to do so. Importantly, this will now include communications or observations formed during religious confessional, which will no longer be privileged or protected, and must be reported to Victoria Police. 

‘Religious ministry’ is broadly-defined to include those who are ordained, appointed or recognised as a religious or spiritual leader in a religious or faith-based institution. The non-exhaustive list of such people may include a priest, imam, rabbi, monk, nun, pastor, church elder, deacon, granthi, religious minister, pujari, religious brother or sister, vicar, preacher and Salvation Army officer.

Depending on the nature of the religious institution or faith-based denomination, it may include certain lay members of that religious community as well.

It is also important to note that the changes to the law will not only be confined to places of worship such as churches, mosques, synagogues, temples or similar:– the broad definition of ‘religious institution’ includes an entity that provides activities, facilities, programs or services of any kind under the auspices of any faith, and through which adults interact with children. 

More information is available in the Mandatory reporting to child protection fact sheet for people in religious ministry on the Department of Health and Human Services website. The department is providing free information sessions for people in religious ministry. You can register for the sessions at the following links:

Tuesday 28 January 2020, 1:30pm to 3:30pm
Tuesday 4 February 2020, 3pm to 5pm
Monday 10 February 2020, 9:30am to 11:30am

These changes do not replace existing reporting obligations for heads of religious organisations and faith-based communities under the Reportable Conduct Scheme. More information on the Scheme is available in the Guide for Faith Communities on the Reportable Conduct Scheme.