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Queensland seal of confession proposals raise concerns about freedom of religion

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.

AUSTRALIAN Catholic Bishops Conference president Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, doesn’t believe proposed Queensland laws to break the seal of confession would make children any safer.

The state’s Labor Government has proposed legislation that would force priests to report admissions of child sexual abuse to police.

“We understand why the Royal Commission made its recommendation on the seal and why the State Government is now considering legislation,” Archbishop Coleridge said. 

“We share the concern of the Royal Commission and the Government for the safety of children. 

“We also understand that many in the community don’t understand why the seal is so important for Catholics. 

“But this is new territory for the Church, at least in this country; and we need to move carefully and consider deeper issues if the proposed legislation is to do what it aims to do. 

“I don’t believe that the proposed legislation will make children any safer and may in some circumstances make them less safe.”

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk unveiled draft legislation on August 22 that would require priests to adhere to the same mandatory reporting requirements as other professions, including teachers, doctors, nurses and childcare workers.

“It will be a (criminal) offence to not report or not protect the victim of a child abuser, religious confession or not,” Ms Palaszczuk told Parliament.

Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath said the draft legislation that was now open for public consultation was in line with recommendations from the royal commission into child sexual abuse.

Brisbane Oratory Father Scot Anthony Armstrong, who chairs the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, said legislators “don’t have the slightest idea of what the sacrament is and how it is carried out”.

“Offenders, if they even contemplated going to the sacrament, would simply avoid it,” Fr Armstrong said.

“Some say it is a way of entrapping ‘bothersome’ priests. That is certainly possible.

“It is perhaps a prompting towards confessionals with separate entrances and compartments for penitent and priests, a fixed grille, and a veil over the grille.”   

Archbishop Coleridge said questions of the rights of conscience and freedom of religion were also raised, “given that this proposed legislation is not about one element of the sacrament but about the possibility of the sacrament in our society”. 

“The question therefore is not whether the Catholic Church sees itself as above the law but whether this proposed legislation is well conceived, likely to be effective and, in the end, just,” he said.  

The Queensland Government plans to introduce the legislation to Parliament before the end of the year.

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