SYDNEY • Catholic leaders in Australia have rejected a government push to force priests to report accusations of child sexual abuse heard during confession, saying it would violate a sacred rite, infringe on religious freedom and ultimately do little to protect children.
The rebuke came as the country's Roman Catholic Church last Friday issued a lengthy response to a five-year government inquiry uncovering what officials called a "national tragedy" of sexual abuse of children spanning decades.
The investigation, perhaps the most far-reaching inquiry of its kind done by any country, examined abuse in religious institutions, schools and other establishments, finding that many of the cases of suspected abuse involved Catholic priests and religious brothers.
Church officials sought to strike a largely conciliatory tone in their response, acknowledging the gravity of the Church's "colossal failures" to protect children and embracing the vast majority of the recommendations coming out of the inquiry.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said the Church's leadership had made a pledge: "Never again."
Yet it rejected the proposal to hold priests legally culpable for failing to tell the authorities of acts of suspected abuse they hear during confession.
Laws that make a failure to report a criminal offence have already been introduced in some parts of the country.
"This proposed law is ill-conceived and impractical. It won't make children safer and it will most likely undermine religious freedom," Archbishop Coleridge said.
In 2012, Australia created a royal commission, the highest form of investigation in the country, to examine child sexual abuse across a range of institutions.
The findings, released in December, showed the country had been in the grip of an abuse epidemic that stretched back decades and involved over 4,000 institutions.
Investigators identified 4,444 abuse victims and at least 1,880 suspected abusers from 1980 to 2015. The report said 62 per cent of victims who said they were abused in a religious institution said it took place in a Catholic facility.
The commission issued 189 recommendations, including creating a national office for child safety and calling on Australia's Catholic leaders to press the Vatican to end mandatory celibacy for priests.
In its response last Friday, the Australian Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia issued a 57-page report, accepting nearly all the royal commission's recommendations. But it took issue with the recommendations involving confession, including a proposal that children practise the rite only in an open space within the clear line of sight of another adult, and lifting the seal of confession to report abuse allegations.
Church officials said their objection to reporting abuse cases applied only to the confessional, where there is an expectation that conversations are shielded.
They added that a transformation of the church was already under way, with improved screening and training of potential priests and nuns.