On 21 January last year the Vic/Tas general secretary wrote to assembly, the other synods, presbyteries and Church councils as well as all the reporting bodies and institutions of the synod to inform them of a decision of the Synod Standing Committee (SSC) to incorporate the synod.
The letter and subsequent reporting in the February 2016 Crosslight informed the Church that a Legislative Incorporation Task Group (LITG) was being formed to develop a framework for achieving incorporation within Victoria and Tasmania.
Sixteen months later the sands have shifted both at the state and commonwealth government level.
The LITG, headed by Rev Dr John Evans, had made considerable inroads into the task set by the SSC until November last year, when the federal government announced plans to introduce a national redress scheme in relation to child sexual abuse.
This created uncertainty for the Victorian government, which had planned a state-based redress scheme after the 2013 Betrayal of Trust report of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Child Abuse in Religious Organisations. That inquiry made specific recommendations which would require institutions and organisations that work with children, such as the Church, to incorporate.
Since the announcement of a redress scheme late last year, the federal government has provided no further information. It could be waiting for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which is due to complete its final report by the end of the year. The Royal Commission has stated it supports a national redress scheme to ensure equity and compassion for survivors.
Nor has the state government made any further announcements regarding a potential state-based redress scheme, after announcing a public consultation on the matter in August 2015. Meanwhile the impact of these developments on the requirement of the Church to incorporate is unclear.
To be incorporated means an organisation becomes a legal ‘person’ or entity, and like a person it owns assets, it can sue and be sued in its own name. The synod currently exists as an unincorporated association with two Property Trusts (Vic) and (Tas). This presents some legal difficulties for abuse survivors in pursuing their claims.
“The Church needs to discern how to best meet its responsibilities to a rapidly changing civil society,” Rev Dr Evans explained.
“We have failed society, as is evidenced by the survivor stories to the Royal Commission. We will either be compelled to make changes, that is become incorporated, or we can decide for ourselves to make the change as part of our commitment to civil society to be a good citizen.”
Assembly President Stuart McMillan hosted a National Consultation on Incorporation in Sydney in March this year. It was attended by all moderators and general secretaries as well as other synod representatives. However, other synods have not needed to consider incorporating as they have not faced recommendations like those coming from Victoria’s Betrayal of Trust inquiry.
“The LITG is consulting the assembly, the Assembly Legal Reference Committee, and the other synods, but we also recognise that consultation might be superseded by state government compulsion to incorporate,” Dr Evans said.
“The Synod Standing Committee has made clear that it wants the LITG to continue investigating the most appropriate framework for the Church’s presence within society despite the changing landscape.
“In the past, church might have been set apart, special even, but that is no longer the case. Both the community and the government expect all institutions to abide by laws that ensure the physical, psychological and sexual safety of all people, regardless of age.
“The local footy club, the Scouts and other community groups, along with institutions, have the same OH&S, child safety and other compliance demands placed upon them. We are no different.”
The SSC wants to ensure it is ready if the state government compels the Church to incorporate. This means considering the Uniting Church Acts (Vic and Tas), the Constitution and Regulations, but also what it means theologically.
For incorporation to work effectively, it requires a high degree of cooperation and consultation across the inter-conciliar governance of the Church. This has been planned for but the Task Group is dependent on clarity from government before proceeding further.