Canberra, Australia, Dec 2, 2019 / 14:01 pm
Australia’s Catholic bishops support “nationally consistent” reporting standards for the abuse of minors, but cannot support new national legal standards that would force priests to report real or suspected child abuse learned under the strict confidence of sacramental confessions, the bishops have said.
“The removal of protections at law would be ineffective, counter-productive and unjust: ineffective because abusers do not seek out confession and certainly would not seek it out if they knew that their offences would be reported,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said in a statement to Reuters.
“Counter-productive because the rare opportunity a priest may have to counsel abusers to turn themselves in and amend their life would be lost; and unjust because it would establish as a matter of law a situation where a priest would not be able to defend himself against an accusation made against him,” he added.
Attorneys-general in Australia’s federal and state governments have agreed on reporting standards that would require priests to break the sacramental seal or violate Australia’s mandatory abuse reporting rules. Further, priests would not be able to use the defense of privileged communications in the confessional seal to avoid giving evidence against a third party in criminal or civil proceedings.
“Confessional privilege cannot be relied upon to avoid a child protection or criminal obligation to report beliefs, suspicions or knowledge of child abuse,” said a communique released after a Nov. 29 meeting of the attorneys-general.
If priests were to follow these new requirements and break confidentiality, they would commit mortal sin and be automatically excommunicated. The 1983 Code of Canon Law holds that the sacramental seal is “inviolable” and it is “absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the secrecy of the confessional “admits of no exceptions.”
In an October interview about a Victorian law seeking to violate the confidentiality of the confessional in cases of the abuse of minors, Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne said that he personally would keep the seal.
The archbishop said that confessions of child sexual abuse within the context of confession are extremely rare. He would urge anyone who confessed to abuse to report themselves to the police. However, Catholic practice forbids a priest from ordering a penitent to turn themselves in to the authorities.