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Published: 09 September 2014
Author: Penny Savidis

Religious ministers face greater child safety checks

Religious ministers from all denominations will be subject to revised child safety laws under new legislation in Victoria.

The new law amends the Working with Children Act 2005. It's another step in the state government adopting the recommendations of the "Betrayal of Trust" report, published last November after the Parliamentary Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other non-government organisations.

The report made 15 recommendations, and as Ryan Carlisle Thomas Partner Penny Savidis wrote last month, agitation is growing in the community over the length of time being taken for the government to turn all of the recommendations into law. There are calls for the Napthine government to commit to implementing all the recommendations before the state election on November 29.

Reforms to Working With Children Checks (WWC)

The Working with Children Amendment (Ministers of Religion and Other Matters) Act 2014 focuses on the Working With Children Check scheme (WWC). Introduced in 2006, more than 820,000 WWC cards have been issued to workers and volunteers across Victoria. In the Second Reading speech of the Bill, Liberal Minister Edward O'Donohue said the WWC system "has strong public acceptance in the Victorian community. The amendments further strengthen and improve the operation of the scheme to enhance the protection of children from physical and sexual harm".

Under the new law, all work done by a religious minister will be treated as child-related work for the purposes of obtaining a WWC card, unless the contact with children is only "occasional and incidental". Previously, the Act said religious ministers only needed to complete a WWC if their contact with children was "direct or unsupervised".

To remove any doubt with respect to religious ministers, the Amendment gives an illustrative example:

"Despite any other provision of this section, if a minister of religion is the appointed leader of a local religious congregation ...and the congregation contains any children, work engaged in as a minister of religion is child-related work".

Under these new requirements, it now appears prudent for all religious leaders across Victoria's multi-faith community to obtain a WWC card to avoid falling foul of these requirements.

Safety of children 'paramount consideration'

The Amendment also adds a new section to the Act, broadly stating the protection of children is the "paramount consideration" for decision-makers when deciding whether to issue a WCC card, for a religious minister or any lay person doing child-related work. Previously, this consideration had been characterised as the "main purpose" of the Act. Mr O'Donohue told parliament this "will put beyond doubt that the protection of children is a more important consideration than any other consideration, such as the individual's right to work". Another significant change is that pending charges for serious sexual and violent crimes will be considered in the WWC card assessment process.

The effectiveness of these changes, and how many more will be introduced to parliament before the November election, remains to be seen - but hopefully the end result will be greater legislative and real-life protection for children in Victoria's religious communities.

Research assistance provided by Kate Stowell.

Additional Links:

Working with Children Check website: About the Check

Penny Savidis profile: Penny Savidis

Blog by Penny Savidis, re political wrangling over passing betrayal of trust legislation: Candidates debate to turn up the heat on the Ellis Defence

Fairfax Article about calls on Napthine govt to speed up reform: Smorgon foundation among those demanding urgency over child abuse recommendations

Betrayal of trust report: Inquiry into the handling of Child abuse by religious and other Non-government organisations

Second Reading Speech by Mr Edward O'Donohue MP: Working With Children Amendment (Ministers Of Religion And Other Matters) Bill 2014

Categories: Victoria, Child Abuse

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