The Catholic Church believes the seal of confession must remain intact despite the prospect of its priests facing criminal charges for failing to report child sexual abuse.
The child abuse royal commission wants a new crime of failure to report child sex abuse in institutions, including when the information came from religious confessions.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, says confession is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion that must continue to be recognised by Australian law.
“Outside of this all offences against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so,” Archbishop Hart said in a statement.
The royal commission said the recognition of the right to freely practise one’s religious beliefs must be balanced against the right of children to be protected from sexual abuse.
It said if clergy were exempt from reporting child abuse by an adult associated with their religious institution because they learned about it in confession, civil authorities may not receive information enabling them to intervene and remove an abuser’s opportunity to abuse in an institution that provides them with access to children.
The CEO of the Australian Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, said the seal of confession is one of the universal laws of the church.
He said should Australia’s parliaments change the law, priests would be expected to obey the law, like everybody else, or suffer the consequences.
“If they do not this will be a personal, conscience decision on the part of the priest that will have to be dealt with by the authorities in accordance with the new law as best they can,” he said.
Brisbane’s Catholic Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the relationship between priest and penitent in the Sacrament of Penance is unlike any other relationship, because the penitent speaks not to the priest but to God, with the priest only a mediator.
“That needs to be kept in mind when making legal decisions about the seal of the confessional,” he told his diocesan newspaper The Catholic Leader.
“So too does the need to protect the young and vulnerable in every way possible.”
The commission said it did not accept that encouraging abusers to self-report through confession was sufficient to protect children from the risk of harm of abusers seeking absolution for their actions.
It pointed to psychologists’ evidence that for some clergy perpetrators the act of attending confession was part of a pattern of continued offending, because after confessing they would feel a degree of absolution.
It said its conclusion was backed by the evidence of a clergy member that he would be constrained from taking action if a penitent perpetrator did not report themselves after he made absolution dependent upon self-reporting.