Lawyers in the United Kingdom have recommended that mandatory reporting laws apply to priests in the confessional, in order to curb incidents of child sexual abuse.

The recommendation came during an investigation of Benedictine abbeys and their associated schools, after numerous victims came forward alleging clergy at the schools had committed acts of child sexual abuse.

Richard Scorer, a representative with the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), said during a hearing that mandatory reporting laws should apply even to information bound by the seal of confession.  

“A mandatory reporting law would have changed their behaviour,” Scorer said, according to The Guardian. “At Downside Abbey, abuse was discovered but not reported, and abusers were left to free to abuse again and great harm was done to victims.”

“The Catholic Church purports to be a moral beacon for others around it yet these clerical sex abuse cases profoundly undermine it … Why has the temptation to cover up abuse been particularly acute in organisations forming part of the Roman Catholic church?”

David Enright, a lawyer representing numerous victims in the investigation, echoed Scorer’s sentiments.

“Matters revealed in confession, including child abuse, cannot be used in governance,” Enright told The Guardian. “One can’t think of a more serious obstacle embedded in the law of the Catholic church to achieving child protection.”

The seal of confession often arises during cases of the abuse of minors in the Church.

According to Church law, a priest is under the gravest obligation not to reveal the contents of a confession, or even whether a confession took place. He cannot do so even under threat of imprisonment or civil penalty, and can incur a latae sententiae excommunication if he breaks the seal of confession.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1467, explains the Church’s view on the seal of confession:

“Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents' lives.”

The Church has long taught that allowing violations of the seal of confession would discourage the confession of sins, and prevent penitents from seeking forgiveness and rectifying their lives.

According to the Code of Canon Law, “a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict.”

In 2016, the Supreme Court of Louisiana heard a similar case, in which a priest was asked to reveal the contents of a confession of a minor, which he was alleged to have heard. The court upheld the priest’s right to the seal of confession. Louisiana’s law makes an exemption for priests as mandatory reporters in cases of abuse of minors  if he “under the discipline or tenets of the church, denomination, or organization has a duty to keep such communication confidential.”

Earlier this year, the bishops of Australia indicated that they would resist the Royal Commission's proposal to criminally punish priests who do not break the seal of confession in cases involving the abuse of minors. The proposal was made in response to a widespread clerical sex abuse scandal that broke in the country in recent years.

While the Catholic Church upholds the seal of confession, it also recognizes clerical abuse of minors as criminal and gravely sinful.

In recent years, the Vatican has expanded its efforts to protect children from sexual abuse. In 2001, the Church issued norms strengthening its approach to prosecuting crimes committed against children, requiring that allegations of abuse be forwarded to civil authorities and to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).  

In March 2012, Pope Benedict XVI issued guidelines to prevent abuse of minors and to involve the faithful in abuse prevention.

Pope Francis has continued these efforts during his pontificate, creating a special group within the CDF to hear the cases of high-ranking clerics charged with the most serious crimes. He has also begun to study the possibility of introducing to canon law the crime of “abuse of office” for bishops who fail to fulfill their responsibilities to prosecute sex abuse.

In addition to disciplinary measures against abusers, the Church has also worked at the highest level to reach out to victims and provide them with counseling and support.