What legal protections priests should have in the confessional needs to be decided on the national level in Australia, according to the premier of the eastern state of New South Wales.
The government of the state – which includes Australia’s largest city, Sydney – is instituting a range of new laws targeting child abuse in response to the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released last year.
The royal commission 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.
The commission issued several suggestions concerning the Catholic Church, including requiring priests to report any sexual abuse of children that is confessed during the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The “seal of confession” is considered inviolable in Catholicism, and any priest who breaks it faces excommunication.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the question of the seal of confession would not be included within the new state laws and should be handled at a national level: “We believe it is beyond the boundaries of any one state.”
“Our response to that recommendation is to take it through the COAG process, we believe that is the best way to deal with it,” she said. “They’re complex issues that need to be balanced with what people believe to be religious freedoms.”
The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) brings together the federal government, the state and territorial governments, and the Australian Local Government Association to coordinate government activities.
Berejiklian did not say whether she would recommend priests be forced to break the seal of confession in cases of child sex abuse.
New South Wales Attorney General said the law created new criminal offenses for those who fail to report and protect at-risk children.
“Our report laws will cover every adult, no matter what their occupation background. That includes priests,” Speakman said.
“However, there is a religious confession privilege in uniform legislation that applies to the majority of states and territories,” he continued.
The Catholic Church has strongly opposed the recommendation from the Royal Commission to violate the seal of confession under any circumstances.
The Church in New South Wales did not immediately respond to the comments of the premier, but during his Easter Sunday homily, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher spoke about “powerful interests” seeking to marginalize religious believers.
“We cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia,” Fisher said on April 1.
“We may not always be as free as we are now to evangelize and baptize as Jesus mandated at the first Easter,” he said.
Turning to the issue of the seal of confession, the archbishop said it was “threatened today both by neglect and attack.”
“But priests will, we know, suffer punishment, even martyrdom, rather than break the seal of Confession,” Fisher said, adding “no earthly authority may enter” the meeting of confessor and penitent.
The debate in Australia over confession is happening as Fisher’s predecessor, Cardinal George Pell, faces charges of “historical” sexual assault offenses – meaning the crimes allegedly occurred decades ago – in his home state of Victoria.
Pell – on leave from his position as head of the Vatican’s new Dicastery for the Economy – vehemently denies the charges, which involve alleged incidents happening when he was a priest and later Archbishop of Melbourne.