Comensoli prefers jail to breaking confession seal

Melbourne’s Archbishop Peter Comensoli says he would rather go to jail than report admissions of child sexual abuse made in confession.

He was referring to a bill in Victoria’s parliament which will make it mandatory for priests to report suspected child abuse to authorities, including abuse revealed in the confessional.

Under current law, various professionals working with children must tell authorities if they develop a reasonable belief that a child has been abused or face up to three years in jail.

Amendments to the law – which follow Royal Commission into Child Abuse recommendations – mean religious leaders will be compelled to tell police of disclosures of abuse during reconciliation.

Last year the Church formally rejected legally forcing clergy to report abuse revealed during confessions.

Comensoli says he doesn’t see the principles of mandatory reporting and the seal of confession as being “mutually exclusive”.

He says he would encourage someone who admitted to abuse to tell police and to speak to him again outside the confessional. This way he could report the abuse without breaking the seal of confession.

However, he would break the law rather than the confessional seal if the person did not want to speak to him outside of confession.

Catholic priests who break the seal of confession currently face excommunication from the church.

Victoria’s Child Protection Minister says the amendments will bring about “cultural change” to make future generations of Victorian children safer.

Anti-abuse advocate Chrissie Foster says the legislation is a breakthrough.

She cited the case of Catholic priest Michael McArdle — who claimed in an affidavit to have confessed he was sexually abusing boys over a 25-year period — as an example of why the laws were needed.

“Instead of him offending for 25 years, now he’ll be mandatorily reported at the first confession, not allowed 1,500 other confessions after that,” she said.

Father Kevin Dillon, who has been an outspoken advocate for victims of church abuse, says the new laws offer an opportunity to revisit the canon surrounding the confessional seal.

“I think there’s a certain amount of burying the head in the sand in terms of the way in which the church has got to react to this,” he says.

“I don’t see the seal of the confessional as so much a teaching as a practice, and practice can be altered.”

“I would have to follow my conscience at the time to do what I believe was the right thing to do.”

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