NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman has announced significant increases in jail sentences for people who conceal child sexual abuse after a campaign led by Hunter survivors following the sentencing of former Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson in Newcastle in August.
Mr Speakman said he expected a jump in jail terms from a maximum two years to possibly seven years for concealing child sexual abuse could lead to more reporting of child sexual abuse within family settings, where the majority of abuse occurs.
At a media conference in Sydney today Mr Speakman acknowledged the work of Maitland Christian Church leader Bob Cotton and Hunter survivors Paul Gray and Peter Gogarty whose petition with 13,000 signatures led the NSW Government to reconsider the penalties.
“Child abuse can lead to a lifetime of trauma for victims and should be reported to police immediately,” Mr Speakman said.
“Increasing penalties for concealment will deter people from protecting perpetrators or turning a blind eye to their crimes.”
The planned amendment to section 316A of the NSW Crimes Act will introduce staggered penalties for people failing to report child sex allegations to authorities including police.
The highest penalty will increase from a maximum two years in jail to five years, and seven years if someone hides child sex crimes for a benefit.
The campaign for an increase in the penalty followed the sentencing in August of former Catholic Archbishop Philip Wilson to 12 months’ jail for failing to report child sex allegations about Hunter priest Jim Fletcher to police.
Wilson is serving the sentence as home detention but an appeal against his conviction is set down for later this month.
“These reforms will enable courts to impose longer sentences on people who protect paedophiles and other heinous child abusers. In light of recent caselaw, we have listened to the concerns of survivors and the broader community, including more than 13,000 people who signed a petition to Parliament advocating this change,” Mr Speakman said.
NSW and Victoria are the only Australian states where people can be charged for concealing child sex offences. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended uniform laws across the country making it a criminal offence not to report child sex allegations to authorities including police.
Mr Speakman said he hoped the announcement would have an educational effect across the community about the necessity to report child sex allegations.
“Publicity about this will drive home to people that all children should be safe and it doesn’t matter whether the abuse occurs in an institution or in a home, it should be reported and children should be protected,” Mr Speakman said.
He declined to comment about whether other police are investigating other child sex conceal cases, but said he expected the penalty increase could lead to further investigations. Survivors have criticised the lack of further prosecutions after the Wilson conviction.
“If there is a higher maximum penalty that is telling not just the courts but prosecutors that society takes these sorts of crimes incredibly seriously and wants them investigated, and I think we’ll see more investigations of historical abuse. Most importantly, these increases in penalties will reduce the possibility of child abuse happening in future,” Mr Speakman said.
An emotional Mr Gray said the announcement was one of the best days of his life. He thanked survivors for speaking to the royal commission, and the 13,000 people who signed the Hunter-based petition.
“As survivors, we know how painful it is to go through life carrying such a terrible burden. The government has listened to us,” Mr Gray said.
“Society is aware of this now. Now it’s time to change. Now it’s time to look after our kids.”
Mr Cotton said the legislation would be a game-changer.
“No longer are the institutions going to be able to maintain the culture of cover-up. Now they’re on notice that those who choose to protect paedophiles, child rapists, they will come under the full scrutiny and punishment of the law. This legislation is the perfect follow-up to the royal commission,” Mr Cotton said.
Mr Gogarty thanked the NSW Government and Mr Speakman.
“I cannot stress enough how grateful we are that this government and this attorney general has put the needs of vulnerable children and vulnerable people ahead of the needs of institutions. I find it difficult to describe how important it is to child abuse survivors to know that from now on anyone who knew about this terrible scandal, and covered it up, will now face a significant punishment.
“If they won’t do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do, perhaps they’ll now do the right thing because they’re frightened of going to jail for five years.”
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