An Australian priest has called the Royal Commission's recent proposal to enforce law requiring that clergy face criminal charges if they do not disclose details of sexual abuse revealed in the confessional a breach of religious tolerance. Fr. Kelvin Lovegrove, Episcopal Vicar for Clergy in the Archdiocese of Sydney, told CNA Aug. 24 that he was “surprised” by the suggestion made by the Royal Commission that priests be forced “to break the law in regard to the Seal of Confession.”

“Australia is religiously tolerant country, and many people have emigrated to Australia from other countries so that they can freely practice their faith,” he said, calling the proposal “an intrusion by the Government into the realm of the spiritual relationship between priest and penitent, which up until has been sacrosanct.”

He said the proposal is out of step with expectations for others who maintain similar confidential relationships, noting that “other professionals such as psychologists, lawyers and journalists are not required to break confidences in regard to confidential information between them and their clients.”

Fr.  Lovegrove's comments come less than two weeks after Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, established in 2013, on Aug. 14 released a sweeping 85 proposed changes to the country's criminal justice system.

In addition to several other suggestions for abuse prevention, the commission recommended that the failure to report sexual abuse, even in religious confessions, be made “a criminal offense.” “Clergy should not be able to refuse to report because the information was received during confession,” the report said, adding that if persons in institutions are aware of possible child abuse or suspect it, they ought to report it right away. The commission cited cases brought before them in which perpetrators who had confessed the sexual abuse of children to a priest then “went on to re-offend and seek forgiveness.”

Therefore, while it recognized the importance of Confession to the Catholic Church, “the report recommends there be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offense granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in connection with a religious confession.”

According to the Church's canon law, “the sacramental seal is inviolable. Therefore, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other manner.” A priest who directly violates the “Seal of Confession” incurs a “latae senentiae” excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See, which can only be lifted by the Pope himself. Despite hearing the testimony of several bishops during their investigative phase, who pledged full cooperation with civil authorities, but drew a line when it came to the confessional, the commission insisted on the proposal to break the seal anyway.

In his comments, Fr. Lovegrove noted that “few perpetrators confess such a sin or crime as pedophilia.” However, if the commission's suggestion is adopted as law, priests who do hear such confessions are still “bound by the Seal of the Confessional,” he said, “and if the law were enacted, then yes they would face criminal prosecution.”

As it stands, the pastoral approach between a priest and penitent is for the priest to meet the penitent, whether perpetrator or victim, outside of the confessional, in order to “look at ways in which they might approach the civil authorities and resolve the dilemma in that way,” Fr. Lovegrove said.

Until now there has been no concrete advice from the bishops on how to respond to the proposal, he said, but explained that they are discussing the matter, “and will advise clergy as to the most appropriate course of action to take in regard to upholding the seal of confession.”

The priest stressed that in Australia, the Church and State have always maintained “a fairly amicable relationship” on topics related to religious freedom, and that as far as possible, both parties would seek to continue this relationship. “Hopefully, there will be an agreeable outcome to this dilemma,” he said, noting that Church officials have already apologized publicly for sexual abuse within the Church, which continues to support the victims and their families.

“The Church has always sought to co-operate in any way with the civil authorities, especially regarding this situation,” he said. “It would be my hope that continuing dialogue between the Church and State may be able to resolve the proposed law in a way which respects the work of the Church in society.”

The Church, he said, “has been at the forefront of education, health care and social work in Australia,” and it would be “in the best interest of all to try and continue to work together for the betterment of all Australians.”