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Bishops call for protection of confessional seal following Royal Commission’s recommendations

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Sacrament questioned: “In the Sacrament of Penance, the relationship between priest and penitent is unlike any other relationship, because the penitent speaks not to the priest but to God, with the priest only a mediator. Photo: CNS.

PROTECTING the sacred dialogue between God and sinner in the confessional needs to be paramount if Australian lawmakers are to follow new recommendations proposed by the Royal Commission, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge has said.

Archbishop Coleridge was responding to the recommendations made by Royal Commission into child sexual abuse that would require members of clergy to report information even if it is revealed in the confessional.

The recommendation was one of 85 contained in a report released by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse today.

The report, titled Criminal Justice, includes reform to police and prosecution responses, evidence of complainants, sentences and appeals, and grooming offences.

It also recommends making failure to report child sexual abuse in institutions a criminal offence.

Persons in institutions should report if they know, suspect or should have suspected a child is being or has been sexually abused.

This would make it illegal for clergy to refuse to report incidents of child sexual abuses that are received during confession even though the Church believes the penitent is speaking to God.

Archbishop Coleridge said the final decision would rest with the parliaments of Australia and it was “with them that the Church must now speak, since it is they who will decide the law of the land”.

“All citizens are bound to respect the law, but it is ultimately conscience which stands in judgment upon the decisions of individuals who, if they choose to break the law, choose also to accept the consequences of that,” Archbishop Coleridge said.

“The challenge for the Church is to hold together two key values: first, the protection of the young and vulnerable, and second, the protection of the sacrosanct character of the sinner’s dialogue with God.

“In the Sacrament of Penance, the relationship between priest and penitent 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.

“So too does the need to protect the young and vulnerable in every way possible.”

The Royal Commission’s final hearing into the Catholic Church in February asked a panel of priests with more than 150 years’ combined experience if they had ever heard a person admit to a crime during confession.

The priests responded that they could not recall this happening.

Several priests in the panel said it was possible to withhold absolution until the penitent confessed the crime to police.

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart also responded to the recommendations, saying the sacrament of Penance was “a spiritual encounter with God through the priest”.

“It is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognised in the Law of Australia and many other countries,” Archbishop Hart said.

“It must remain so here in Australia.

“Outside of this all offences against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.”

Royal Commission chief executive officer Philip Reed said the criminal justice system was often seen as not being effective in responding to child sexual abuse cases, and conviction rates were lower compared to other crimes.

“Child sexual abuse cases are often ‘word against word’ cases with no eyewitnesses or medical or scientific evidence. Complainants often take years or decades to disclose their abuse,” Mr Reed said.

“Although we have focused on child sexual abuse in institutions, these eighty-five recommendations are likely to improve responses to child sexual abuse in all contexts.”

Mr Reed said the recommendations had been informed by the Royal Commission’s public hearings, private sessions, a consultation paper, research and roundtables sessions.

The commission heard of cases in religious settings where perpetrators who made a religious confession to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness.

The report recommends there be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offence granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in connection with a religious confession.

The report also recommends “failure to protect a child within an institution from a substantial risk of sexual abuse by an adult associated with the institution” should be made a criminal offence.

The commission heard of many cases where perpetrators were moved between schools and other sites operated by the same institutions when an allegation against them was raised.

They continued to abuse children in new locations.

The report also recommends legislation should be introduced or amended to adopt a broad grooming offence that includes any communication or conduct with a child with the intention of grooming the child to be involved in a sexual offence.

Furthermore, governments should introduce laws to extend their grooming offences to the grooming of persons other than the child, such as a parent or carer.

This aims to protect the child while also recognising that grooming behaviour can harm those who care for the child.

By Mark Bowling and Emilie Ng

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