Council’s charged debate on child abuse in places of worship

By Meg Hill

The City of Melbourne passed a motion last month regarding the safety of children following a charged debate in response to comments by the archbishop of Melbourne that he would not comply with new mandatory reporting laws.

Cr Nicolas Frances Gilley, a former priest, introduced the motion on October 15 which passed by five votes to three. It stipulated that council would enquire as to what role it could play in relation to new state laws on mandatory reporting of child abuse in places of worship. 

While introducing the motion, Cr Frances Gilley told the meeting he had resigned his licence partly due to issues of child abuse in the Catholic Church.

Later in the meeting, in response to debate on the motion, Cr Frances Gilley said that he himself had attended a boarding school and had been sexually abused.

“When you mention personal issues I mean, I did go to boarding school and I was sexually abused at boarding school, but that is not why I’m bringing this motion,” Cr Frances Gilley said. 

“Our role, every single one of our roles, is about safeguarding our children and we might not have a legal responsibility, but if we’re not confident – and I’m not confident currently – we should ask the professionals around us to check that we have done everything we can do to ensure the safety of children.”

Cr Frances Gilley said he began thinking about the issue when he read that the archbishop of Melbourne said he would not break the confessional seal to comply with the laws if an admission of child sexual abuse was made in the confessional. 

“What that made me think about is, as an elected official in a council and that we have all these places of worship, and I am unaware of how many people there might be that think their faith put them above the law with respect to this issue,” Cr Frances Gilley said.

“And then I realised it’s not a crime until it happens, but the trouble is we know that it has happened, and it’s happened to thousands of children over the years.”

“So, if we as a council know that there are people who wouldn’t mandatorily report, shouldn’t we be considering what we should do about that rather than wait to hear that somebody was abused, somebody did confess or tell someone, and because of their faith they didn’t report that.”

Councillors Rohan Leppert, Nicholas Reece, Arron Wood, and Jackie Watts voted in support of the motion, while councillors Susan Riley, Beverley Pinder and Kevin Louey voted against it.

While Cr Pinder said she strongly supported the new Victorian laws, she spoke against the motion and said it subjected the Catholic Church to “attack” and “took the council into territory which it has no role or authority in”.

“Let me pre-empt by saying that obviously all we can do to protect our children and keep them safe … is paramount and goes without saying,” Cr Pinder said.

“But I don’t believe this is a fair and constructive way to do it.”

“I really think we ought to be focusing on that which brings our ratepayers greater benefit … and we ought not to be fighting our own battles, this is not a battleground for our own personal issues.”

Cr Leppert spoke in favour of the motion and said it was an issue for ratepayers.

“I’m not sure what’s meant by ‘personal matters’, I don’t have any children but I feel passionately about this issue and that we have this public debate about what the laws mean and how they play out in practice, and whether or not any, prominent or not, places of worship are going to be compliant,” Cr Leppert said.

“We’re not proposing any role for the City of Melbourne yet, the conclusion of this motion is to seek advice.”

“Let’s be clear, this isn’t a motion to volunteer to become an enforcement arm on behalf of the state government to uphold its new mandatory reporting laws.”

“We’re prompting a public discussion about a very important issue and we’re not presuming where it may lead.”

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