Australia’s federal and state attorneys agreed to standardise laws making it mandatory for priests to report child abuse revealed during confessions. The agreement among the top attorneys was based on the three principles for the laws, recommended after the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The decision on the contentious issue can create a further divide between the church and the government.
Australian attorneys, in a communique published after the meeting, said that confessional privilege cannot be relied upon to avoid child protection or criminal obligation to report beliefs, suspicions or knowledge of child abuse. There have been several allegations that churches protect paedophile priests and keep law enforcement agencies in dark. In October, Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, pointing to some “important achievements and initiatives”, had said that Church’s ongoing response to its “shameful” history has marked major milestones in the past year.
“The Church’s work to implement and maintain child-safe practices and environments started before the Royal Commission was announced, but the need to respond to its recommendations has given our work great impetus,” said Coleridge.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, in its final report in 2017, had recommended that laws concerning mandatory reporting should not exempt priests on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession. It urged the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to consult with the ‘Holy See’ and clarify whether information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession.
On the treatment of religious confessions, the report recommended the “legislation should exclude any existing excuse, protection or privilege in relation to religious confessions to the extent necessary to achieve this objective”. The report was created after the commission handled 42,041 calls and held 8,013 private sessions for almost five years.