What to do if your school receives a historical sexual abuse report?

10 August 2017

It takes immense courage and strength for survivors of historical child abuse to come forward and discuss the behaviours to which they were subjected.  Sometimes survivors of historical child abuse make claims against the institutions where they suffered the abuse - such as schools and religious organisations.  With the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) exposing the wrongdoings of abusers, the law makers around Australia are responding to the need to protect children from physical and mental harm.

Every state and territory around Australia has different legislative requirements when it comes to the reporting and the handling of child sex abuse claims.  When a claim of sexual abuse occurs at a school, knowing what and when to report, and to whom, is half the battle.

In addition to reporting requirements, every state and territory has different legislative limitation periods for claims for damages.

Below is a table that summarises, at a general level, the child protection reporting requirements of each Australian state and territory. There are many ways people may become aware of abuse, but the table focuses on self-reporting by the victim. Schools should also note that there may be obligations to report current/former teacher misconduct to the state/territory-specific teacher registration board. Legal advice should always be obtained in any case.

State/Territory  Reporting requirements


If the victim reporting the historical abuse is a child, schools will need to report to Family and Community Services NSW, as well as report to the NSW Ombudsman regarding any reportable conduct allegation (refer to our previous School Governance article for more information on reportable conduct).  If an adult comes forward claiming historical abuse, schools should report the matter to the Police.
Victoria If a former student is now an adult and reports a claim of historical abuse, the school must notify the Police.  If the former student is still a child, a mandatory report to the Department of Health and Human Services and a reportable conduct allegation to the Commission for Children and Young People must be made. Reporting requirements under the Crimes Act may also apply.
WA While there was no legal requirement to report child abuse prior to 1 January 2009, it is a requirement of registration for non-government schools, and to follow mandatory reporting procedures prior to this date. Hence if a former student (or representative of the former student) reports past abuse or grooming behaviour, a report must be made to Child Protection and Family Service WA. Police should also be contacted when an adult former student has made an allegation of historical child abuse.


If a current student or a former student who is child, comes forward and makes a historical allegation of sexual abuse, a mandatory report must be made to Child Safety Services Queensland.  If an adult makes an allegation of historical abuse, it should be reported to Police.


If an adult reports historical abuse, it should be reported to the Police.  If a child reports an allegation of abuse, a mandatory report must be lodged with Child Safety Services Tasmania or with Gateway Services if there is no immediate risk of harm.


If a child discloses abuse, a mandatory report must be made to Child and Youth Protection Services and reportable conduct allegations must be communicated to the ACT Ombudsman. If the child is in immediate danger, the Police must be contacted.  Schools should also notify the Australian Federal Police in respect of adults who make a claim of historical child abuse.


If a former student, who is still a child, makes a claim for historical abuse against a school, a mandatory notification to the Department for Child Protection SA must be made or reported through the Child Abuse Report Line (CARL) (services provided by the Department of Child Protection SA).  If an adult makes a historical abuse claim, schools will need to contact Police.


If a child makes a claim then schools should contact NT Department of Children and Families or Police and make a mandatory report. If an adult makes a claim, schools should report to Police.

Royal Commission Recommendations

Many survivors of historical abuse are adults who have come forward after abuse which occurred many years ago.  The Royal Commission has noted that complaints can date back decades, and the accused may have long ago left the institution or passed away, but those still living may still have contact with children. The Royal Commission recommends that the procedures for dealing with historical complaints need to focus on what can be done to assist the complainant.  The Royal Commission recommends that when dealing with historical complaints institutions must:

  • acknowledge the abuse suffered;
  • issue an apology;
  • provide assurance that current policies will keep children in the institution safe and the abuse will not be repeated; and
  • support the complainant, such as paying for counselling costs or providing other financial assistance.

How to respond to a historical abuse complaint

If a school receives a historical abuse complaint they need to make sure they document everything, such as the name of the victim, who the alleged perpetrator was/is, date and time they received the complaint.  If they meet the victim in person, they must document all the details about the meeting including time and date of the meeting, what the complaint is about, who is the alleged perpetrator, what was said during the meeting and who was present.

It is critical that, as soon as they receive the complaint, the management of the school should seek legal advice. If the complaint has been made by a victim who is now an adult, school management should contact the Police.  If a complaint was previously made, and the matter has been previously dealt with by the authorities and the courts, legal advice should be sought to determine next steps, as the victim may be claiming monetary compensation.

Generally, if the victim in the complaint is a child, the school’s management should seek legal advice. If school staff believe that the child is in immediate risk of harm, the Police must be notified.  A mandatory report must be made in accordance with mandatory reporting laws in each state or territory to report any abuse that a child may have suffered.

Schools need to remain mindful of their legal obligations, as each state and territory’s laws are different as to what they need to report and the obligations vary on the specific circumstances.  That is: whether the victim is a child or adult, whether the accused is still employed at the school or still has contact with children.  Above all, the school should be mindful of the victim's safety.

William Kelly

William is a Legal Research Coordinator at CompliSpace. He assists with drafting and reviewing policies and procedures, as directed, for CompliSpace clients as well as writing regular articles for the School Governance blog. William is a lawyer and an officer of the Supreme Court of Victoria.