Australia’s Catholic bishops support “nationally consistent” reporting standards for the abuse of minors, but cannot support new national legal standards that would force priests to report real or suspected child abuse learned under the strict confidence of sacramental confessions, the bishops have said.
“The removal of protections at law would be ineffective, counter-productive and unjust: ineffective because abusers do not seek out confession and certainly would not seek it out if they knew that their offenses would be reported,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said in a statement to Reuters.
“Counter-productive because the rare opportunity a priest may have to counsel abusers to turn themselves in and amend their life would be lost; and unjust because it would establish as a matter of law a situation where a priest would not be able to defend himself against an accusation made against him,” he added.
Attorneys-general in Australia’s federal and state governments have agreed on reporting standards that would require priests to break the sacramental seal or violate Australia’s mandatory abuse reporting rules. Further, priests would not be able to use the defense of privileged communications in the confessional seal to avoid giving evidence against a third party in criminal or civil proceedings.
“Confessional privilege cannot be relied upon to avoid a child protection or criminal obligation to report beliefs, suspicions or knowledge of child abuse,” said a communique released after a Nov. 29 meeting of the attorneys-general.
If priests were to follow these new requirements and break confidentiality, they would commit mortal sin and be automatically excommunicated. The 1983 Code of Canon Law holds that the sacramental seal is “inviolable” and it is “absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the secrecy of the confessional “admits of no exceptions.”
In an October interview about a Victorian law seeking to violate the confidentiality of the confessional in cases of the abuse of minors, Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne said that he personally would keep the seal.
The archbishop said that confessions of child sexual abuse within the context of confession are extremely rare. He would urge anyone who confessed to abuse to report themselves to the police. However, Catholic practice forbids a priest from ordering a penitent to turn themselves in to the authorities.
Comensoli said he would also encourage a person who confessed to abuse to repeat the admission again outside of the context of confession, where the seal would not apply and he would be free to report the abuser to the police.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, a five-year Australian government inquiry, concluded in 2017 with over 100 recommendations. These recommendations included requiring religious leaders to report child abuse.
Teachers, police, and medical practitioners are already legally required to report allegations of child physical and sexual abuse.
In September, when the Tasmania legislature passed a mandatory reporting law that did not provide for the confidentiality of the confessional, Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart said the pope has made it clear “there can be no exceptions to the inviolability of the seal of confession.”
The Church will comply with all other requirements of the mandatory reporting law, he said.
“Priests and all who work for the Church understand their obligations before the law to report on matters of child sexual abuse. Priests, however, cannot comply with law that would require them to violate their commitment to the Church’s consistent teaching on the inviolability of the sacramental seal.”
“Governments can give all sorts of justifications for wanting to know what has been confessed to a priest, from the most noble (the protection of innocent human life) to the most base (the maintenance of political power),” he said.
“If one priest was to break it the faithful would lose confidence that what they confess could be made public or used against them,” said Porteous, who cited the examples of saints who gave their lives rather than violate the seal of confession.
The Constitution of Australia establishes religious freedom. It is unclear whether legal challenge to the rules could succeed.
The first law compelling priests to report confessions of abuse was passed in 2018 in the Australian Capital Territory. The states of New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia had preserved legal protections for priests who seek to maintain confidentiality, the Mail on Sunday reports.
Cardinal George Pell, who was Archbishop of Sydney from 2001 to 2014, is currently appealing a conviction on five charges that he sexually abused two underage choristers after Sunday Mass while he was Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 and 1997. He is presently serving a six-year prison sentence.