A government commission in Australia on Monday said Catholic priests must violate the seal of confession if they hear about the sexual abuse of children.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was established in 2013 to investigate how institutions like schools, churches, sports clubs and government organizations have responded to allegations and instances of child sexual abuse.
On Monday, it issued its report on criminal justice, including 85 recommendations for new legal standards.
Recommendation number 35 said laws on reporting sexual abuse of children “should exclude any existing excuse, protection or privilege in relation to religious confessions.”
The commission’s report said the right to practice one’s religious beliefs “must accommodate civil society’s obligation to provide for the safety of all and, in particular, children’s safety from sexual abuse.”
The report explained the commission’s reasoning:
“We understand the significance of religious confession – in particular, the inviolability of the confessional seal to people of some faiths, particularly the Catholic faith.
However, we heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in religious confession, by both victims and perpetrators.
We are satisfied that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behavior in order to deal with their own guilt.
We also heard evidence that the practice of religious confession is declining, at least in the Catholic Church. However, it remains possible that information about child sexual abuse held by people associated with a relevant institution is communicated to a priest hearing a religious confession.”
The commission also said it heard of cases where perpetrators who made a confession about sexually abusing children went on to re-offend, and later go back to confession to seek forgiveness.
Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said in a statement the inviolability of the seal of confession is a “fundamental part of the freedom of religion,” and this is recognized in Australia and many other countries around the world.
“Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest,” Hart said.
The archbishop said the Church is “absolutely committed” to reporting all offences against children to the authorities, outside of the obligations of keeping sacramental confessions confidential.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane told The Catholic Leader – Brisbane’s Catholic newspaper – the challenge for the Church is “to hold together two key values: First, the protection of the young and vulnerable, and second, the protection of the sacrosanct character of the sinner’s dialogue with God.”
Coleridge said the next task for the bishops is to have this discussion with Australia’s parliament, as they consider the legislation.
“All citizens are bound to respect the law, but it is ultimately conscience which stands in judgment upon the decisions of individuals who, if they choose to break the law, choose also to accept the consequences of that,” Coleridge told the newspaper.
“In the Sacrament of Penance, the relationship between priest and penitent is unlike any other relationship, because the penitent speaks not to the priest but to God, with the priest only a mediator,” Coleridge said. “That needs to be kept in mind when making legal decisions about the seal of the confessional. So too does the need to protect the young and vulnerable in every way possible.”
While giving evidence to the commission in February, at least one Catholic archbishop claimed there could be some leeway on the issue.
“It seemed to me to be plausible in those circumstances that if a child told you this was happening to them, they’re not confessing a sin, they’re just giving you some information about what’s happening to them and in that doctrine, it would be possible then to do something about it,” Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide said at the time.
According to the Church’s canon law, “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 penalty for violating the seal of confession is excommunication.
The royal commission said in February seven per cent of priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 were accused of sexually abusing children.
In June, Cardinal George Pell – the head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, and formerly Archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney – was charged with multiple counts of historic sex abuse.
Pell is the highest-ranking Church official in Australia to be accused of abusing minors, and he vigorously denies the charges.