Australian child sex crimes

Report calls for end to sanctity of confession

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher yesterday said he was "appalled by the sinful and criminal activity of some clergy, religious and lay workers (and) ashamed of the failure to respond by some church leaders".
Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher yesterday said he was "appalled by the sinful and criminal activity of some clergy, religious and lay workers (and) ashamed of the failure to respond by some church leaders".PHOTO: EPA-EFE

But top Catholic warns of excommunication for priests breaking seal of confessional

SYDNEY • Australia should introduce a law forcing religious leaders to report child abuse, including Catholic priests told of abuse in the confessional, says a report which details institutional abuse, particularly in the Catholic church.

One of the country's top Catholics, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, said such a law would undermine a central tenet of Catholicism, the sacredness of the confessional, and warned that any priest breaking the seal of confession would be excommunicated.

The 17-volume document from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse, released yesterday, marks the end of one of the world's biggest inquiries into child abuse and leaves it to the government to decide whether to enact its recommendations.

The five-year probe found "multiple and persistent failings of institutions to keep children safe, the cultures of secrecy and cover-up, and the devastating effects child sexual abuse can have on an individual's life", the commission said.

It was contacted by more than 15,000 survivors who detailed claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools, often dating back decades.

The commission heard horrific stories during often confronting and emotionally exhausting public and private hearings. In total, more than 4,000 institutions were accused of abuse.

"We will never know the true number," the report said. "Whatever the number, it is a national tragedy, perpetrated over generations within many of our most trusted institutions."

  • KEY FINDINGS

  • • The Royal Commission was contacted by more than 15,000 survivors who detailed claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, sporting clubs, youth groups and schools. • More than 4,000 institutions were accused of abuse. Of survivors who reported abuse in religious institutions, more than 60 per cent cited the Catholic church.

    • There were over 1,800 alleged perpetrators, with the average age of the victims at the time 10 for girls and 11 for boys.

    • Seven per cent of Catholic priests were accused of abuse in Australia between 1950 and 2010, but the allegations were never investigated, with children ignored and even punished when they came forward.

    • More than 2,500 referrals have been made to police, with 230 prosecutions under way.


    KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

    • Introduce a law forcing religious leaders to report child abuse, including Catholic priests told of abuse during confession.

    • The Catholic church should make celibacy voluntary for its clergy, saying the rule contributed to child abuse.

    • Set up a National Office for Child Safety as well as national child safety standards, helpline to report child abuse, and record keeping, to cover all institutions engaged in child-related work.

    REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The inquiry heard of alleged cover-ups in the Catholic church, including claims that priests suspected of abuse were moved between parishes to avoid detection.

Of survivors who reported abuse in religious institutions, over 60 per cent cited the Catholic church, which demonstrated "catastrophic failures of leadership", particularly before the 1990s, the report said.

It said clergy told of child abuse in the confessional should be required by law to report it. The report also called for the Catholic church to make celibacy voluntary for clergy.

"I would feel terribly conflicted, and I would try even harder to get that person outside confessional, but I cannot break the seal," Archbishop Hart told reporters.

"The penalty for any priest breaking the seal is excommunication... so it's a real, serious, spiritual matter, and I want to observe the law of the land... but as part of my identity as a priest, I have to observe the seal of the confession."

A similar recommendation was made during Ireland's 2009 child abuse inquiry, leading to a mandatory reporting law in 2015. Some US states have similar requirements.

The report also called for a National Office for Child Safety in Australia as well as national child safety standards, child abuse reporting and record keeping, which would cover all institutions engaged in child-related work.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the inquiry had "exposed a national tragedy" and that the government would consider the recommendations and respond in full next year.

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher said he was "appalled by the sinful and criminal activity of some clergy, religious and lay workers (and) ashamed of the failure to respond by some church leaders".

The inquiry heard previously that the Australian Catholic church has paid A$276 million (S$285 million) in compensation to thousands of child abuse victims since 1980.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 16, 2017, with the headline 'Report calls for end to sanctity of confession'. Print Edition | Subscribe