New child sex offence laws have been slammed as “a cruel joke and an insult to survivors” by Maitland Pastor Bob Cotton, who wants harsher penalties for concealing abuse.
The NSW Government has recently introduced law reforms in response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse – but they appear to have fallen well short of community expectation.
The reforms include new offences such as failing to report child abuse and failing to protect against child abuse, both of which carry a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.
To put that in perspective, offences which also carry a maximum of two years imprisonment include offensive language, damaging fountains and obstructing traffic.
“It’s in there with DUI,” Pastor Bob Cotton said. “[It’s] nothing more than an insult to survivors.”
Paul Gray, who was sexually abused as a child by the late Fr Peter Rushton in the 1960s, said he felt “outraged and absolutely gutted,” before correcting himself.
“Actually … I feel betrayed,” he said. “A person witnessed my abuse – that priest went on to abuse probably hundreds of boys. If that person did something, then that could have been prevented.”
Pastor Cotton said while the new laws will make it easier to convict for the crime, the penalty is no harsher than a Section 316 (Conceal Serious Indictable Offence), which Archbishop Philip Wilson was sentenced under last week.
Wilson was given 12 months in custody with a non parole period of six months for failing to report allegations of child sexual abuse against paedophile priest Father Jim Fletcher.
“Magistrate [Robert] Stone went to lengths to stress the seriousness of Wilson’s crime but was unable to deal with it effectively because of the inadequacy of the existing legislation,” he said.
“I was in the courtroom when that sentence was handed down. It was a gut-wrenching insult.
“The community is sick of seeing ineffective sentencing of criminals whose actions, or in this case, inaction destroy the lives of the most vulnerable and innocent in our society.”
Pastor Cotton said the new laws did not reflect public expectation, the degree of criminality or act as a deterrent.
In comparison to the new concealment laws, persistent child sex offenders could face life in prison under the reformed legislation.
“If we’ve got a situation where the primary offence is recognised as serious as that, then concealing the crime should be considered more grievous,” Pastor Cotton said.
“Where’s the balance?” Mr Gray added. “If a child is being raped, the paedophile is certainly not going to go to the police.”
The cover-up of abuse in the church was what allowed it to continue, Pastor Cotton said, and led to many more people’s lives being ruined over the years.
“If the people who knew would have acted, possibly thousands of lives would have been spared this grief,” he said.
“Every one of those kids has a lifetime sentence.”
Mr Gray said he knew of five people who took their own lives because of the abuse inflicted on them by Fr Rushton.
He said he wrote to “every politician in Australia” before the laws were passed, pleading for them to introduce harsher penalties.
“We don’t want the laws we had before all of this came out,” Mr Gray said. “I think the State Government has been cowardly.”
Pastor Cotton said the maximum penalty for concealing child sex offences should be in the vicinity of 10 years imprisonment or at the very least five years – the point at which offences are considered “serious” rather than “summary”.
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