The findings and recommendations emanating from the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (2012–2017) have advised religious organisations that they need to undertake significant changes to legal, governance and cultural/theological practices. The reason for urgency in enacting these changes is that religious organisations were the least child safe institutions across all Australian organisations, with poor practices of transparency, accountability and responsibility coupled with a tendency to protect the reputation of the institution above the safety of children in their care. In Australia, new state laws have been enacted and are impacting on the internal governance systems of religious organisations, including removing the secrecy of the Catholic confessional, instituting mandatory reporting of child abuse by clerics and criminalising the failure to report child sexual abuse. Religious organisations have moved to adopt many of the recommendations regarding their troubled governance including the professionalisation of religious ministry; adoption of professional standards; and appropriate redress for survivors and changes to religious laws. However, these changes signal significant challenges to current church–state relations, which have been characterised by positioning religious organisations as special institutions that enjoy exemptions from certain human rights legislation, on the basis of protecting religious freedom. This article examines and evaluates the nexus between state and religion in Australian public life as it is emerging in a post-Royal Commission environment, and in particular contested claims around the meaning and value of religious freedom versus the necessity of institutional reform to ensure that religious organisations can demonstrate safety for children and other vulnerable groups.
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