New law about confession premature, ill-judged, says Archbishop

A new law requiring priests to break confession seal is ‘premature and ill-judged’, says Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge.

Priests are not using the seal of confession to protect child abusers.

Removing a priest’s legal protection will not make children safer, Coleridge says.

While he agrees children’s safety is paramount, he says safety measures must be realistic and effective.

Australia’s Royal Commission into Child Abuse recommendations are being adopted by a number of Australian states.

These recommendations could see priests facing criminal charges for failing to report child abuse revealed in confession.

Coleridge said the royal commission did not find a systemic problem with the sacrament of penance in terms of child safety.

“Priests from a range of different backgrounds and pastoral experiences have said the sacrament isn’t being abused to protect those who commit crimes against children.

“The church doesn’t want to protect criminals. It wants children to be safe from them.”

The church wants measures that will genuinely make environments safer for children, he says.

“There’s nothing to suggest that legal abolition of the seal will help in that regard.”

Coleridge says the church does not view the sacramental seal as incompatible with maintaining child safety.

However, the royal commission saw the matter differently.

It had heard the testimonies of more than 8,000 survivors of child sex abuse. Of those who were abused in religious institutions, 62 percent were Catholics.

It found the sacrament of reconciliation (penance) was a factor that contributed to both the occurrence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and to the church’s inadequate response to the abuse.

New South Wales (NSW), the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and South Australia (SA) have either extended their mandatory reporting laws or introduced new failure-to-report offences. The ACT and SA laws include confessions.

In SA the confessional would not be exempt from the reporting law coming into effect in October. Breaches of the law will attract a maximum $10,000 fine.

In NSW, failure to report offences will apply to clergy and ministers of religion. Failure to report offences will attract up to two years’ jail. The government says the religious confession privilege comes under uniform evidence law that applies in multiple jurisdictions.

Other royal commission recommendations include:

  • reporting to police any child abuse disclosed during Catholic confession
  • the Australian Catholic Church seeking permission from the Vatican to introduce voluntary celibacy for the clergy.


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