Wanting mandatory reporting ... Archbishop Denis Hart. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones
THE head of Australia's Catholic bishops says alleged child sexual abuse offenders, including members of the clergy, should be barred from using statutory limitation restrictions to escape justice for their victims.
The Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, who is president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, which is meeting in Sydney on Tuesday, said all states and territories should abolish time limits on victims seeking compensation in civil proceedings.
''There shouldn't be any artificial restriction on our society's ability to redress such matters,'' he said. ''The evil of sexual abuse is so serious and so awful that the only way in which the victims will come to any sense of peace is if their matter can be dealt with by the offender being brought to justice.''
Archbishop Hart also called for mandatory reporting by priests of suspected cases of child abuse, in line with legal obligations on childcare workers, teachers and doctors.
The issue will be debated at this week's meeting of Catholic bishops, which will focus on the church's response to the forthcoming royal commission into child sexual abuse. Priests should be required to report suspected cases of abuse even when the victim does not want to go to police, Archbishop Hart said.
''The bishops will be discussing how we, as a church, can move together and act truthfully and responsibly to aid the work of the royal commission,'' he said. ''It's a moment of truth.''
In NSW, the limitation period for bringing child sexual abuse claims in civil proceedings is typically between three and 12 years from the date of the offence. There is no statute of limitation in criminal cases.
The general secretary of the Anglican synod in Australia, Martin Drevikovsky, supported the call for the government to abolish these time limits.
Without law reform, accused Catholic clergy should waive their right to rely on this statutory defence, Archbishop Hart said.
Child sexual abuse expert Annie Cossins, of the University of NSW, said scrapping the statutory ''escape clause'' for alleged offenders would help victims suffering prolonged psychological trauma.
''It might take an eight-year-old 10 years before they feel safe enough to tell people for the first time, particularly given the secrecy that surrounds the abuse and the degree of coercion the children are subject to,'' she said.
Shine Lawyers partner Roger Singh, who has represented hundreds of sexual assault victims, said current laws denied some people ''access to justice to fair and reasonable compensation''.
A spokeswoman for the NSW Attorney-General, Greg Smith, said that the government welcomed the discussion on limitation periods.