Confessional seal stays – priests risk jail

Controversy has broken out in Australia since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse published recommendations saying priests should break the confessional seal when child sexual abuse is confessed.

The Commission wants legislation introduced to jail people who fail to report child sexual abuse, including priests.

In response, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference chair, Archbishop Denis Hart says while the church is “absolutely committed” to reporting child abuse disclosed to them outside of confession, priests have an “absolute moral obligation” to preserve the secrecy of the confessional.

They should accept a prison term rather than reveal the contents of a sacramental confession, Hart says.

“What goes on in the confessional is between God and the person and I am there for them to know that they are forgiven,” he says.

In the Commission’s view, however: “The right to practice one’s religious beliefs must accommodate civil society’s obligation to provide for the safety of all and, in particular, children’s safety from sexual abuse.

“Institutions directed to caring for and providing services for children, including religious institutions, must provide an environment where children are safe from sexual abuse. Reporting information relevant to child sexual abuse to the police is critical to ensuring the safety of children.”

Changing the law to reflect the Commission’s recommendations may not be straightforward.

As Hart points out, the laws in Australia “and in many other countries recognise the special nature of confession as part of the freedom of religion, which has to be respected.”

Other high-profile clerics are backing Hart, including Jesuit priest and lawyer Frank Brennan.

“If there is a law that says that I have to disclose it [perpetrators’ sex abuse confessions], then yes, I will conscientiously refuse to comply with the law,” Brennan told The Australian.

“All I can say is that in 32 years no one has ever come near me and confessed anything like that.

“And instituting such a law, I say, simply reduces rather than increases the prospect that anyone ever will come and confess that to me.”

The CEO of the Australian Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, says if the law is changed priests will have to make personal, conscience decisions that will have to be dealt with by the authorities in accordance with the new law.


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