‘Catholic Church thinks it’s above the law’: Sex abuse survivor hits out

Child sexual abuse victim Steve Fisher has been a strong campaigner in the fight for a change in laws. Source: Getty

Child abuse survivor, social worker, fierce campaigner; these are just a few ways to describe the inspirational Steve Fisher, whose fighting spirit has helped to change the future of thousands across the country. 

Sexually abused by notorious pedophile priest Garth Hawkins when just a teenager, the Beyond Abuse founder has made it his mission to ensure other victims across the country receive the justice they deserve. 

For the past 18 years Steve has fought for a change in laws to lift the veil of secrecy currently protecting priests from reporting sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy. 

Now, the survivor has finally reached success in his home state of Tasmania, as the government moves to enforce the law, following in the lead of South Australia. 

Although incredibly rewarding, the battle for change hasn’t been easy for Steve, who was one of seven victims Hawkins abused throughout the 1970s and ’80s. While the pedophile priest, who now goes by the name of Robin Goodfellow, was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in 2003,  it hasn’t dulled the pain and emotions brought up by the experience. 

“It is quite emotional,” Steve told Starts at 60. “But campaigning for change and seeing that happen is part of my healing process. It does take a lot of time and emotional energy, however, I always think if it helps one person it’s worth it.”

Earlier this month the Tasmanian Government unveiled draft legislation outlining the decision to make mandatory reporting a criminal matter. While many public sector workers already face fines if they fail to report suspected abuse, until now priests have been able to keep those details secret.

For Steve, this has been the cause of much frustration as he tries to understand how the Catholic Church has remained an exception to the law.

“The Anglican Church and the state government have listened and made changes, but the Catholic Church seems to think it’s above the law and their law should be the law of the land,” he said. “We’re not back 300 years ago. It’s a really sad indictment of the Catholic Church that they are saying nope, we don’t care.”

In June, Sydney priest Michael Whelan defended the church, claiming the government’s decision to order the Catholic Church to lift the veil of secrecy applied to worshipers and their priests was in conflict with the Church’s religious principles.

“The state will be requiring us as Catholic priests to commit as what we regard as the most serious crime and I’m not willing to do that,” he said.

As a social worker and founder of an organisation that supports child sexual abuse victims, Steve said it’s hard to believe it has taken so long for the law to be put into place.

“The Catholic church needs to drag itself into the 21st century and start changing laws; to me it seems crazy they haven’t,” he said. “As a mandatory reporter, if I knew about a case of child abuse and didn’t report it all hell would break loose, so why should the Catholic Church be any different to the rest of the Australian community? It is a really bad move on their part.”

In December of last year, The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was handed down with more than 400 recommendations, one of them suggesting a change in law to compel religious leaders to report abuse. Since then states and territories across the country have begun the process of changing laws, with South Australia the first to put it into action and Tasmania following closely behind.

Speaking to Starts at 60 Shine Lawyers special counsel in abuse law Kimberly Allen said while different approaches are being taken across Australia, things are slowly changing.

“The law will be enforced in the ACT in March next year, and there is progress in votes in political parties in New South Wales and Victoria,” she explained. “The Council of Attorneys General are also set to meet at the end of December to address the progress being made in various states and territories.”

As for Queensland, compensation lawyer Trent Johnson, of Bennett & Philp Lawyers, said the community’s repugnance of child sex abuse means offenders should no longer be allowed to hide behind the church confessional.

“Everybody in the community has a obligation to report abuse and do everything in their power to prevent any abuse of children,” he told Starts at 60.

While the battle for justice is far from over, Steve is not standing down just yet. The fierce campaigner urged all states and territories to follow in the lead of Tasmania and South Australia by taking action and changing the law. 

“Draft it as soon as possible, get it through parliament and make these guys accountable,” he said. “Don’t just talk about this, do it. The sooner it’s done the better.”

Have you been following the progress of the change in law? Do you think it should be mandatory for priests to report confessions of abuse?

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