Politicians can change the law, but priests won’t violate the confessional, said the administrator of the Archdiocese of Adelaide.
A new law says religious ministers in the state of South Australia will have to report anyone who admits to child abuse, even if it’s in the confessional.
Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson in May became the most senior Catholic cleric in the world to be convicted of covering up child sex abuse in the 1970s. He could face two years in prison.
Adelaide is the capital of the state of South Australia.
Bishop Gregory O’Kelly, an Adelaide native, was appointed by Francis as apostolic administrator for the Adelaide archdiocese after Wilson’s trial.
The law was passed last year, but O’Kelly said he was not aware that it would apply to sacramental confessons until Thursday.
“We have an understanding of the seal of confession that is in the area of the sacred. Politicians can change the law, but we can’t change the nature of the confessional, which is a sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ,” the bishop told ABC Radio Adelaide on Friday.
Under Church law, any priest who violates the seal of confession is excommunicated.
“That does not change by the law of politicians,” O’Kelly said.
“My obligation would be to try to urge that person to go to somewhere where he can get help or whatever, to do whatever he can to change this dreadful behavior,” the bishop said when asked how he would respond if someone confessed abusing a child.
“You urge it, you go down on your knees and beg him to, but I can’t break the seal of a confession,” he told the radio station.
O’Kelly said the Church is doing all it can to ensure the safety of children but said breaking the seal of confession would not help.
“Can you imagine the situation of a pedophile coming to confession knowing that the priest is going to immediately ring the police?” he asked.
He said if a child told a priest about being abused in the confessional, the priest would urge the child to report it outside of confession to “somewhere that was safe, someone that they could talk to.”
“A major area of child abuse, of course, is in the family, and we can’t reach into that very well but in our own institutions to make sure all the safeguards are there,” the bishop said.
The new legislation comes in the wake of the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which 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 inquiry – which issued its final report in December – heard the testimonies of more than 8,000 survivors of child sex abuse. Of those who were abused in religious institutions, 62 percent were Catholics.
Several high-profile cases have kept the issue in the public eye. In addition to the recent Wilson trial, Cardinal George Pell, who serves as the Vatican’s finance minister, faces trial on sexual assault charges in Melbourne, where he once served as archbishop.
Earlier this month, a law requiring Catholic priests to break the seal of confession in some cases passed the Australian Capital Territory’s Legislative Assembly in Canberra.
Australia’s Attorney General, Christian Porter, on Monday said he wanted all of Australia’s states to pass laws mandating the reporting of child sex abuse, even if it is discovered during a religious confession.
“My personal instincts are protective and that, ultimately, the need to protect people from sexual abuse, but particularly children, is something that should take some precedence,” Porter said.
Anglican Archbishop Geoffrey Smith of Adelaide said he supported the government’s position and said the Anglican Church had already given an exemption to the seal of confession in cases of child sexual abuse.