CHURCH leaders are standing firm in support of priests upholding the seal of confession as a “religious freedom”, despite a new law that would require a priest to break the seal to report allegations of child abuse and misconduct.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge described the new law – that will apply in the Australian Capital Territory from March 2019 – as “premature and ill-judged, seemingly driven by a desire to penalise the Catholic Church without properly considering the ramifications of the decision”.
The new law could spark a push for similar legislation in other states and territories.
Priests in Canberra could face criminal charges for maintaining the seal of confession in cases relating to confessions of sexual abuse, under new child protection reporting laws introduced by the ACT Assembly on June 7.
Archbishop Coleridge, who served as Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn for six years until 2012, is on the record as saying that in relation to child protection reporting, the confessional should be treated differently “because the penitent speaks not to the priest but to God, with the priest only a mediator”.
He said the new law “is based upon a purely hypothetical construction of the sacrament of Penance, which doesn’t understand the reality of what happens between priest and penitent in the sacrament”.
“Quite apart from important questions about religious freedom, this legislation raises many practical questions about its implementation,” Archbishop Coleridge said.
“It’s the sort of legislation that could be drawn up and passed only by people who know little or nothing of the way the sacrament works in practice.
“… One can only hope that other jurisdictions will be more considered in their decisions and more willing to listen to the voices of Catholic clergy and people than the ACT authorities seem to have been.”
Canberra and Goulburn Archbishop Christopher Prowse summed up his frustration in a Canberra Times story.
“The Government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices and by attempting to change the sacrament of confession while delivering no improvement in the safety of children,” he said.
“What sexual abuser would confess to a priest if they thought they would be reported?” Archbishop Prowse said, adding, “if the seal is removed, the remote possibility that they would confess and so could be counselled to report is gone”.
Supporters of the new ACT law say it is clearly called for in the recommendations of the Royal Commission into child sexual abuse.
This includes that those practising in “religious ministries” should not be exempt from a requirement to report knowledge, or even suspicions, about abuse because that information is gleaned from a religious confession.
A further recommendation was that the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference should publish advice received from the Vatican about how to deal with disclosures of abuse by children in the confessional, and by perpetrators.
The Royal Commission report handed down in December last year contained 409 recommendations including those in interim reports.
The then ACBC president Archbishop Denis Hart said the Australian bishops would put the celibacy recommendations to the Vatican, but added, “I believe that there are real values in celibacy”.
The commission found that celibacy was not a direct cause of child sexual abuse, but was a contributing factor, especially when combined with other risk factors.
“We conclude that there is an elevated risk of child sex abuse where compulsorily celibate male clergy or religious have privileged access to children in certain types of Catholic institutions, including schools, residential institutions and parishes,” the report said.
It remains unclear how other Australian governments will deal with the issue, although Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter has expressed support for unified national laws dealing with the seal of the confessional.
“My personal instincts are protective and that, ultimately, the need to protect people from sexual abuse, but particularly children, is something that should take some precedence,” Mr Porter said, on the ABC’s Insiders program on June 10.
In April, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian called for the seal of confession to be addressed at a national level by the Council of Australian Governments rather than state governments in isolation.
“Our response to that recommendation (of the Royal Commission) is to take it through the COAG process,” she told the ABC.
“They’re complex issues that need to be balanced with what people believe to be religious freedoms.”