First, protect the child, then worry about the penitent sinner: South Australia’s new mandatory reporting legislation

South Australia is on a collision course with the Catholic Church hierarchy following passage of the Children and Young People (Safety) Act 2017.

Chapter 5, Part 1 (ss 30-31), deals with reporting of suspicion that a child or young person may be at risk.  These sections come into effect on 22 October 2018, and impose a duty on ministers of religion, including priests, to report suspicions of child abuse, irrespective of whether that information was obtained during a confession.

Under the Children’s Protection Act 1993 (SA), which currently applies, ministers of religion and employees and volunteers in religious organisations owe a duty to notify suspicions of abuse or neglect: s 11(2).

However, a priest or minister of religion is given a specific exemption from divulging “information communicated in the course of a confession made in accordance with the rules and usages of the relevant religion”: s 11(4).

That changes in October.

Section 31 of the new Act requires health and welfare professionals and ministers of religion to report the suspicion that a child or young person is “at risk”.  There are no exemptions for information disclosed during a confession.

Priests are not singled out in the new legislation.  Section 30 applies to ministers of religion and employees or volunteers of organisations formed for religious or spiritual purposes.  The obligation also applies to medical practitioners, dentists, nurses, psychologists, pharmacists, police officers, community correction officers, social workers, teachers, and employees or volunteers for organisations that provide health, welfare, education, sporting, recreational child care or residential services for children.

Concept of “at risk”

Section 31 requires health and welfare professionals and ministers of religion to report the suspicion that a child or young person is “at risk”.

The concept “of risk” is defined in section 18: it includes circumstances where a child has suffered harm or is likely to suffer harm of a kind from which a child or young person is ordinarily protected.  This includes sexual assaults and related criminal offences.

The concept of “at risk” also includes a suspicion that a child is to be removed from the state for the purposes of undergoing female genital mutilation.

Section 31(3) states that a health or welfare professional may – but is not required – to report when they suspect on reasonable grounds the physical or psychological development of an unborn child is at risk, whether because of the pregnant woman’s behaviour or otherwise.

“Course of employment”

The obligation to report under s 31 arises when a health or welfare professional has a suspicion on reasonable grounds that arises in the course of their employment.

The concept of “employment” is defined broadly to include an employee, independent contractor, volunteer, as well as someone who “carries out work as a minister of religion or as part of the duties of a religious or spiritual vocation”.

Priests to defy new law

Debate about South Australia’s new mandatory reporting requirements takes place against the background of the conviction of Adelaide’s Archbishop Philip Wilson for concealing a serious indictable offence by failing to report credible allegations of sexual abuse of two altar boys by a paedophile priest.

This information did not come to Archbishop Wilson in the confessional and Catholic doctrine did not preclude him acting on it.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended that any minister of religion convicted of a crime relating to child sexual abuse should “in the case of Catholic priests and religious [orders], be dismissed from the priesthood and/or dispensed from his or her vows” (16.56.a).

Archbishop Wilson was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, but has said he will appeal the conviction.  In the meantime, he has refused to resign, indicating, however, that he would resign if the conviction was upheld.

Meanwhile, Acting Archbishop Greg O’Kelly has confirmed that priests are bound by church doctrines and that the new law “doesn’t affect us”.

Appraisal

The fact that a minority of priests have committed sexual offences against children, and that other senior Catholic clergy have failed to act on knowledge of such offences does not mean that sexual predators regularly or even occasionally confess to sexual offences during confession.  The two issues are distinct.

However, even if information about the abuse of a child reaches a priest during a confession only rarely, what does the Catholic church’s rule about absolute secrecy say about its sense of right and wrong?

The very position that such information should remain absolutely confidential if conveyed during the Sacrament of Reconciliation suggests that it is more important to encourage the penitent sinner to seek absolution than to protect the child.

You’d have to be a priest, as distinct from a parent, to follow the logic or the morality of that.

I’m a parent, and I’ll tell you what every other parent will tell you: the over-riding moral priority is to protect your child.

Protect the child.  That’s more important than swearing secrecy to someone who reveals that they are a sexual predator.  What’s not to understand?

In fact, how does someone – acutely sensitised to the rightness and wrongness of things – get to a place where they don’t understand this?

Do penitent sexual offenders never re-offend?

If the person who confesses is truly penitent, surely they would not want the child they harmed to be isolated from services to help them recover from their trauma?

The confessional should not enable further wrong-doing.

It this case it’s secular morality, and the South Australian Parliament, that is leading the way.

My brain made me do it: will neuroscience change the way we punish criminals?

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Source: Flickr

Allan McCay and Jeanette Kennett

Australian law may be on the cusp of a brain-based revolution that will reshape the way we deal with criminals.

Some researchers, such as neuroscientist David Eagleman, have argued that neuroscience should radically change our practices of punishment. According to Eagleman, the courts should give up on the notion of punishment altogether and instead focus on managing criminals and containing their behaviour in order to keep the rest of us safe.

Is this a good idea? And is this how Australian judges are responding to our increasing knowledge of the neurobiological bases of behaviour?

Two approaches

There are two broad approaches to justifying punishing someone who commits a crime. The first is in terms of “moral culpability” or “just deserts”. Crudely, if someone has caused harm, they deserve to have harm inflicted on them in return.

This is known as the “retributive” view; retributivists aim to mete out just deserts, or “just punishment”.

The second approach is to think in terms of the consequences of punishment. If punishment might deter or rehabilitate the offender, or prevent them from committing another crime by incapacitating them, or if it could serve as a deterrent to others, then and only then, is punishment justified.

If the punishment will only harm the individual who committed the crime, but it won’t prevent further crime or benefit others then, on pure consequentialist grounds, it is not justified.

In Australia, judges usually take both retributive and consequentialist considerations into account when determining punishment.

A clear illustration of retributivism is in the sentencing of the serial killer, Ivan Milat where the judge said:

These truly horrible crimes demand sentences which operate by way of retribution […] or by the taking of vengeance for the injury […] the community must be satisfied the criminal is given his just deserts

Currently, Australian offenders are also given the opportunity to make a plea in mitigation after their conviction for a crime. The aim of such a plea is to reduce the severity of punishment.

In some cases, the defence may engage a psychologist or psychiatrist to provide expert evidence about mental or neurological impairment to suggest that an offender is less morally culpable for the crime, and therefore deserving of less retribution.

Neuroscientific tilt

But some academics, such as American psychologists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, have argued that consequentialist considerations will be all that is left after neuroscience revolutionises criminal law. Punishment as retribution will be consigned to history.

According to Greene and Cohen, retributivism relies on the notion that people have free will. They say the advance of neuroscience will cure us of that notion by opening the black box of the mind and revealing the mechanistic processes that cause all human behaviour. Once these causes are revealed, we will give up the idea that people are responsible for their bad actions.

We will start to think that a criminal’s frontal lobe impairment caused him to lash out, for instance, and focus on how we can prevent this happening again, rather than thinking they chose to punch their victim and thus they deserve punishment.

According to Greene and Cohen, this will make crime reduction the only goal. If they are right, punishment practices will move in the direction advocated by Eagleman.

Case by case

Greene and Cohen made their argument about the demise of retributivism ten years ago. In light of their predictive claims, it is interesting to examine how the legal system is actually responding to the increasing use of neuroscientific evidence.

We can get an idea of what is happening in Australia from cases in the Australian Neurolaw Database, which was launched in December 2015. The database is a joint project between Macquarie University and the University of Sydney, and includes both Australian civil and criminal cases that employed evidence derived from neuroscience.

Interestingly, the sentencing cases in the database do not suggest retributive justice is being abandoned when the court is confronted with evidence of impairment to an offender’s brain.

Where used in sentencing, neuroscience evidence is often put forward in relation to assessment of the moral culpability of the offender. It is thus used to help determine how much punishment an offender deserves.

This is very different to suggesting moral culpability ceases to be a relevant consideration in the determination of punishment, or that courts should pay no regard to questions of desert. It presupposes that questions about appropriate punishment are important ones to answer correctly.

One example of the way Australian courts regard evidence derived from neuroscience is in the sentencing of Jordan Furlan in 2014. In sentencing 49-year-old Furlan for a violent incident involving a 76-year-old victim, Justice Croucher considered the impact of evidence of a brain injury some years prior to the offence, on Furlan’s moral culpability.

Justifying a sentence of three years and six months, the judge said the offender’s “moral culpability was reduced, but only to a moderate degree because his judgment was impaired as a result of his acquired brain injury”.

The judge went on to say that just punishment was an important factor (among others) in crafting the sentence.

A more striking case relates to the sentencing of former Tasmanian legislative council member Terry Martin for child sex offences. Expert evidence indicated he had developed a compulsive form of sexuality as a result of the effects of medication for Parkinson’s disease on the dopamine system of his brain.

The judge imposed a much more lenient sentence than would have otherwise been the case because of the clear link between the medication and the offending. This link was said to reduce Martin’s moral culpability.

Slow revolution

We cannot be sure how neuroscience will affect the law in future. Indeed, there may even be a backlash against this form of evidence.

What can be said is that Furlan, Martin and other cases show Australian judges still consider moral culpability, even in the face of neuroscientific evidence of impaired mechanisms. They do not move to purely consequentialist considerations.

This means retributivism is still alive and well, and just punishment still matters to Australian courts. So, at least for now, the impact of neuroscience is not revolutionary.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation and is reproduced with the kind permission of the authors.