LAWS in Victoria requiring priests to report child abuse to authorities – even if it’s heard in the confessional – came into effect last week, and the Queensland Government is planning similar legislation.
It means that Catholic priests could be caught between their state law and Church canon law.
In Victoria priests will be compelled to report child sexual abuse offences disclosed during confessions.
A priest who violates the seal of confession by directly identifying a penitent and linking them to a confessed sin risks automatic excommunication.
The changes bring religious and spiritual leaders in line with teachers, police, medical practitioners, nurses, school counsellors, and early childhood and youth justice workers, who are required to report the abuse and mistreatment of children.
In Queensland the parliament’s Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee has recommended similar changes be passed after considering public submissions, including those from the Catholic Church and agencies.
The new legislation is likely to be voted on in March.
A Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee report states that the aim was to protect against offences of failing to report “any information or knowledge gained during, or in connection with, a religious confession”.
The committee apparently supported views submitted by the child safety foundation, Bravehearts.
“Certainly, with the issue of child protection, secular law should override any Church law and there should be no exemptions,” Bravehearts said in its submission.
“We believe that for most parents, if their child was being sexually assaulted and the offender confessed to a priest, or a child disclosed within confession, they would want the authorities to know about it.
“This is particularly relevant, but not exclusively so, to ongoing sexual assault and the prevention of future sexual harm.”
By contrast the committee report noted points raised in Church legal submissions opposed to law changes:
- Persons guilty of abuse do not go to confession;
- Confessions are made anonymously and lack details to report to police;
- Individuals may falsely present as penitents and fabricate a confession to incriminate priests who fail to report their confessions;
- Canon law forbids priests from breaching the confidentiality of the confessional;
- Priests already urge children to speak about abuse or mistreatment to an adult or authorities outside of confession;
- The offence of “failure to report belief of child sexual offence” is “discriminatory” to Catholic priests, “amounts to an attack on a sacred rite of the Catholic Church”, “unfairly and detrimentally target(s) Catholics and would lead to unjust prosecution of Catholics”; and
- It has serious consequences for freedom of religion.
The views of Attorney General Yvette D’Arth apparently override those points.
“While this government respects the rights of individuals to practise their religion freely and understands there are strongly and sincerely held views about the sanctity of religious confession and the human rights concerns raised about this and the retrospective nature of some of the reforms in the bill, these concerns must be balanced against the need to protect children from child sexual abuse,” Ms D’Arth said.
“The royal commission heard evidence in relation to the issue of religious confessions but ultimately concluded that there should be no exemption or privilege from the failure-to-report offence for clergy who receive information during religious confession that an adult associated with the institution is sexually abusing or had sexually abused a child.”
The committee also quotes the Council of Attorneys-General that considered the confessional privilege issue at a recent national meeting.
CAG “participants agreed to consider the application of the following principles in their respective legislation” – with direct implications for proposed law changes in every Australian state and territory:
- Confessional privilege cannot be relied upon to avoid a child protection or criminal obligation to report beliefs, suspicions, or knowledge of child abuse;
- Confessional privilege cannot be relied upon by a person, in civil or criminal proceedings, to excuse a failure to comply with any child protection or criminal obligation to report beliefs, suspicions or knowledge of child abuse;
- Confessional privilege cannot be relied upon by a person who had an obligation to report beliefs, suspicions or knowledge of child abuse, to avoid giving evidence in civil or criminal proceedings against a third person for child abuse offences.