Ms TIERNEY (Western Victoria)— I add my voice to those who have extended their thanks to the members of the Family and Community Development Committee (FCDC) who were involved in the inquiry that produced Betrayal of Trust, which is such a significant and complex report.
I also thank the staff and all the other people who assisted committee members in their deliberations and with the drafting of the report as well as the people who presented to the inquiry or provided letters and evidence or who had the courage to convey their experiences and share their stories with the committee so that their stories could be brought together with other stories to paint the picture of what was a horrific chapter in our community’s history over many decades. As a result of its inquiry the committee was able to suggest a number of ways in which together the government and the community can try to ensure that the perpetrators of these acts — these crimes — will have their access restricted in the future.
I concur with the comment made by Mrs Coote that if this means we err on the side of suspicion so that this sort of outrageous behaviour is not inflicted on one more child, then so be it. That is our responsibility. I believe that all of us in this chamber, regardless of our political persuasion, are absolutely committed to ensuring that we do whatever we can, whether it be in this place or outside. It is incumbent upon us to make sure that the many members of our community, particularly those who have been in positions of authority, who have inflicted the sorts of indiscretions, interference, and invidious behaviour on our children, and who have absolutely crossed the line on so many levels for way too long, are no longer able to do so.
The Labor Party is very supportive of the bill before the house. We believe that while this is a difficult area to encapsulate in legislation because it is about a set of behaviours, those who have drafted it have done a very good job of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s so that those who are participants in this horrendous behaviour know that one day they will be caught. They will be caught, because the community is being educated about a set of behaviours that are not just grossly inappropriate but criminal.
The way that behaviour is codified in this legislation will help all those who are interested in this area to nab the people who need to be nabbed.
In terms of the technicalities of the bill, clause 3 inserts new section 49B into the Crimes Act 1958, and is about prohibiting a person 18 years or over from communicating with a child under the age of 16 years or a person under whose care, supervision or authority the child is with the intention of engaging the child in a sexual offence. Currently grooming is an aggravated factor to sexual offending, not an offence in itself. This bill provides for intervention prior to the abuse and recognises the damage caused by grooming to victims. The bill also addresses jurisdictional issues, providing for the offence to be made out if the child or the accused was in Victoria at the time at which the communication or the intended sexual offence would have occurred. This covers circumstances where, for example, a child in Victoria receives a communication from a perpetrator living elsewhere.
The bill also amends the definition of ‘victim’ in the Victims’ Charter Act 2006 to include the child and their family member as persons entitled to submit a victim impact statement in criminal prosecutions of the offence of grooming. I think it is important that that is the case because parents and other carers are often involved in these situations and they must be given the ability to make statements and be involved in the criminal process.
The members of the FCDC worked very hard. The committee met on numerous occasions and held hearings not just in Melbourne but also in Bendigo, Geelong and Ballarat. My electorate of Western Victoria Region covers the regional cities of Geelong and Ballarat, and I know from talking to people in my electorate that they very much appreciated the fact that the committee understood that regional voices needed to be heard. In fact a lot of what had been happening over the years had been happening in regional centres, and a number of people have spoken to me about their experiences.
Some did not feel that they could provide evidence to the committee or did not feel physically comfortable attending the hearings, but members should rest assured that they kept a very keen eye on the progress of the inquiry.
There was a lot of communication and cross-fertilisation of information right across regional Victoria in respect of not just the Catholic Church but a whole range of other organisations as well. I think it holds us in good stead that people saw a parliamentary committee take time out to care for and make sure that all those who were involved in the process were heard. Where there were situations in which additional support and care needed to be given, it was offered and extended and in many cases picked up. I record my thanks in respect of the way the whole inquiry was conducted.
Turning to the challenges in prosecuting an offence, in 2013 the New South Wales ombudsman provided indicators to identify when grooming behaviour is occurring.
They include persuading the child that they have a special relationship; inappropriately allowing that child to overstep the rules, such as by giving them alcohol, money or drugs; asking the child to keep their relationship a secret; and testing boundaries — for example, by undressing in front of a child, encouraging physical contact, talking about sex or accidental intimate touching. However, the challenge for authorities will be in establishing that such behaviours occur with the intention to subsequently sexually abuse the child. Prosecutors will rely on a pattern of behaviour, prior conduct and all of the above circumstances to infer the intention, which, as I said, may prove difficult. At least we now have clear guidelines and a serious criminal offence attached to that set of behaviours.
The opposition supports the passage of this bill, which will allow the authorities to intervene when a pattern of behaviour is identified.
It is a preventive measure that aims to protect vulnerable victims and their families from further harm. As I said, Labor also commends the work done by the Family and Community Development Committee and all those involved in the inquiry, including importantly the victims and their families. The committee’s informed recommendations
have guided us in taking measures against the devastating abuse of children in our community. In acknowledgement of the serious nature of those offences it is important that we make this bill our priority. I commend the bill to the house.