SYDNEY • Priests should not be forced to report child sexual abuse revealed in the confessional, according to Australian Catholic leaders who claim they would rather risk jail than break the sacramental seal.
The comments yesterday follow a national inquiry set up by the government into institutional child sexual abuse, which is in its final phase after four years.
The inquiry, known as a Royal Commission, on Monday released 85 proposed reforms, including a law making failure to report such abuse a criminal offence even when the information was revealed during confession. "There (should) be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offence granted to clergy," it said.
One of Australia's leading Catholic clerics, Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart, said that confession was a fundamental part of religious freedom. Asked if priests would go to jail rather than breach the seal of confession, Archbishop Hart told ABC radio: "I've said that I would. I believe that this is an absolute sacrosanct communication of a higher order which priests, by nature, respect."
He was backed by other clerics, including his Brisbane counterpart, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, and Jesuit priest and lawyer Frank Brennan. "And instituting such a law, I say, simply reduces rather than increases the prospect that anyone ever will come and confess that to me," Father Brennan told The Australian newspaper yesterday.
The Royal Commission said it made the recommendation after hearing cases "where perpetrators who made a religious confession to sexually abusing children went on to re-offend and seek forgiveness".
Attorney-General George Brandis told public radio that Australian law had always protected certain professional relationships, including confessions.
While exceptions were possible, this was "by no means a simple, straightforward issue", he said.