Attorneys-general in Australia’s federal and state governments agreed in November 2019 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. Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory had already adopted laws forcing priests to violate the confessional seal, while New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia had upheld it.
Considering other recommendations made by the royal commission, the Holy See agreed “that the question of child safety be given due consideration in the process” of appointing bishops, and noted that some suggestions had been made in recent years, particularly through the 2019 motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi.
Among the recommendations was a retrospective repeal of the statute of limitations on the prosecution of canonical crimes of child sex abuse. The Holy See noted that the statute of limitations has been increased, and that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can derogate from it on a case-by-case basis.
It added, however, that “that the institution of prescription is of ancient origin, in both canonical and civil systems. Its outright abolition could, in fact, result in difficulties for the proper administration of justice since the fallibility of memory with the passage of time and the lack of proofs concerning events from the distant past make it difficult to reach the level of certainty required in criminal proceedings.”
The Holy See observed that “the sexual abuse of minors is a crime in both civil and canon law. The civil and criminal responsibility of individuals who perpetrate that crime is a matter for the laws of the State where the crime is committed. Focusing on the ecclesial aspect of the crime, Canon Law seeks to punish the wrongdoer for the grievous harm he has caused and to protect the faithful from further damage. At the same time, it cannot be indifferent to the sinner's conversion, since it has as a fundamental goal the salvation of souls.”
It also recalled the importance of the presumption of innocence and the need for a judge to have moral certainty in arriving at a decision.
Another recommendation rejected by the Holy See was making celibacy voluntary for diocesan clergy.
The Holy See said that “it wishes to emphasize the great value of celibacy and to caution against its reduction to a merely practical consideration. Indeed, it must be recalled that the practice of clerical celibacy is of very ancient origin, that it developed in imitation of the style of life chosen by Jesus Christ himself and that it cannot be understood outside the logic of faith and of the choice of a life dedicated to God. It is a question that touches also upon the right to religious freedom, that is to say, the freedom of the Church to organise her internal life in a manner coherent with the principles of the faith and the freedom of individuals to choose this form of life.”
“With regard to any assertion of a link between celibacy and sexual abuse, a great deal of evidence demonstrates that no direct cause and effect exists. Sadly, the spectre of abuse appears across all sectors and types of society, and is found too in cultures where celibacy is hardly known or practiced,” the observations noted.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, president of the Australian bishops’ conference, commented that “the bishops are keen to support the ongoing public conversation about policies, practices and protocols which will ensure that children and other people at risk are safe in our communities. It’s in this spirit that the observations have been published.”
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, a five-year Australian government inquiry, concluded in 2017 with more than 100 recommendations.
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