Fighting for survivors of childhood sexual abuse

In late 2019, new laws that compel priests to report child abuse, including when it is revealed to them during confession, were introduced in Victoria.

These changes in legislation are certainly welcome, and now victims of childhood sexual abuse can access justice knowing that the law supports them.

However, these changes also highlight the stark differences in the rate at which states are adopting recommendations from the Royal Commission into childhood sexual abuse. The fight for survivors continues.

Previous barriers for survivors

It has been just under two years since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its report outlining 409 recommendations to make institutions safer for children.

The royal commission was an opportunity to critically analyse the barriers for victims of childhood sexual abuse to be able to make a claim, particularly the three-year limitation periods that left many victims without a legal claim to compensation.

“Broadly speaking, a limitation period is a cut-off date for someone to be able to make a claim for compensation,” says Michelle James, National Head of Abuse Law. “In the past, limitation periods have been devastating for those wanting to make claims against institutions for abuse that they’ve suffered.”

Michelle says that before the Royal Commission, survivors didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.

“Institutions might negotiate with us but the outcome was never a fair representation of what they were owed.”

State by state

In July 2015, Victoria became the first state to remove limitation periods for those who have suffered sexual, physical or psychological abuse as a minor, and other states and territories have since followed suit.

Many of the state governments have also implemented several other key recommendations from the royal commission, including placing the burden of truth around allegations of abuse on institutions, rather than victims. You can see a breakdown of how each state and territory is tracking here.

There have also been recent changes to legislation in Queensland

According to Michelle, the state by state adoption can be difficult for survivors to assess their entitlements.

“Some states have done a better job than others of making sure the appalling behaviours of the past can’t continue into the future,” says Michelle. “It takes most survivors decades to confront what’s happened to them, let alone consult a lawyer.”

The fight for justice must continue

Michelle says that it’s important for the firm to continue campaigning so that all survivors of abuse can make claims in every state and territory without needing to understand complicated differences.

“We’re trying to hold every state and territory to account, to make sure that everyone is aiming for the most victim-centred set of laws.”

Some of this campaigning includes for all states and territories to enact laws around mandatory reporting for staff, putting more onus on institutions to prove they are child-safe, and making it impossible for institutions to protect their assets instead of paying redress. And we believe that governments could go even further to protect victims.

“Organisations like charities and churches enjoy some fairly significant benefits from the government for the work they do — such as tax breaks and allowances,” says Michelle.

“We believe that if a charity or a church can’t prove that its child safe, or refuses to sign up to the National Redress Scheme, then maybe it doesn’t deserve to be a charity.”

“Our opinions are always based on the experiences of the victims we represent. A survivor of child abuse standing up against the might of a church or a large organisation is not a fair fight.”

To find out more about the legal options for survivors of childhood abuse, visit our Beyond Abuse page. It doesn’t cost anything to find out where you stand.

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Michelle James

Maurice Blackburn Brisbane

Michelle James leads Maurice Blackburn’s Queensland and Northern Territory road injury, work injury and public liability practices, and is the head of our national abuse law practice.

Based in our Brisbane office Michelle has been working in the legal industry since 1998 and is a tenacious fighter for the rights of injured people. She was admitted to practice in 2001 and is a Queensland …

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