VATICAN CITY — The bishops of Australia have indicated that they will resist the Royal Commission’s proposal that priests be legally obligated to disclose details of sexual abuse revealed in the confessional, facing criminal charges if they don’t.
“Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest,” Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne said in an Aug. 14 statement.
Archbishop Hart, president of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, said confession “is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognized in the law of Australia and many other countries.”
“It must remain so here in Australia,” he said, but stressed that, “outside of this, all offenses against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.”
The statement came the same day Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, established in 2013, released a sweeping 85 proposed changes to the country’s criminal-justice system.
In addition to suggestions tightening the law on sentencing standards in cases of historical sexual abuse, the use of evidence and grooming, the commission recommended that the failure to report sexual abuse, even in religious confessions, be made “a criminal offense.”
“Clergy should not be able to refuse to report because the information was received during confession,” the report said, adding that if persons in institutions are aware of possible child abuse or suspect it, they ought to report it right away.
The commission cited cases brought before them in which perpetrators who had confessed the sexual abuse of children to a priest then “went on to re-offend and seek forgiveness.”
Therefore, while it recognized the importance of confession to the Catholic Church, “the report recommends there be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offense granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in connection with a religious confession.”
According to the Church’s canon law, “the sacramental seal is inviolable. Therefore, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other manner.”
A priest who directly violates the “seal of confession” incurs a latae senentiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See, which can only be lifted by the Pope himself.
In an Aug. 14 statement from the Australian Church’s “Truth, Justice and Healing Council,” established in 2013 as a platform for the Church “to speak as one” on matters involving the Royal Commission, the council voiced opposition to the proposal involving confession, but suggested that, if implemented, the final decision on whether to comply would come down to each priest and his conscience.
In the statement, Francis Sullivan, CEO of the council, said that while the Catholic Church and the council itself “have consistently argued that these reporting provisions should not apply to the confessional, the Royal Commission has now made a different determination based on information and evidence it has heard over the past four years.”
“The whole concept of confession in the Catholic Church is built on repentance, forgiveness and penance,” Sullivan said, adding that if a child sex abusers are “genuinely seeking forgiveness through the sacrament of confession, they will need to be prepared to do what it takes to demonstrate their repentance.”
Part of this, he said, especially in cases of sexual abuse, “would normally require they turn themselves in to the police. In fact, the priest can insist that this is done before dispensing absolution.”
However, since the commission has now made a suggestion counter to the Church’s position, the final decision on whether or not it will become law is up to individual parliaments to form their own views and then make the relevant changes to the law.
“If, ultimately, there are new laws that oblige the disclosure of information heard in the confessional, priests, like everybody else, will be expected to obey the law or suffer the consequences,” Sullivan said.
“If they do not, this will be a personal, conscience decision on the part of the priest that will have to be dealt with by the authorities in accordance with the new law as best they can.”
Other changes proposed by the commission include changes to police responses, such as improvements to investigative techniques when interviewing; provisions for the improvement of “courtroom experience” for victims, making the process less traumatic; the removal of “good character” as a factor in sentencing when that character carried out the abuse; changes requiring sentences to be placed in line with current sentencing standards rather than those at the time of the offense and the extension of grooming offenses to cover when the offender builds trust with a parent or guardian in order access the child.
Of the proposed changes, another that could affect the Catholic Church in real time is the request to change sentencing policies for historical cases of sexual abuse.
The suggestion asks that “all states and territories should introduce legislation so that sentences for child sexual abuse offenses are set in accordance with sentencing standards at the time of the sentencing, instead of at the time of offending.”
However, they said the sentence “must be limited to the maximum sentence available for the offense at the date when the offense was committed.”
“Many survivors of institutional child sexual abuse do not report the offense for years or even decades, and applying historical sentencing standards can result in sentences that do not align with the criminality of the offense as currently understood,” they said.
Although it is unknown whether the change will in fact be made or how quickly it could be enforced, the move would directly affect cases such as that of Cardinal George Pell, who is currently facing charges on multiple counts of historical child sexual abuse.
Cardinal Pell is the most senior Vatican official to ever be charged with abuse.
At a brief hearing in Melbourne July 26, the cardinal said he would be pleading “not guilty” to the charges. He is set to appear at a preliminary hearing Oct. 6.
At the time the charges were announced, Victoria Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton stressed the importance of remembering that “none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have, obviously, been tested in any court yet.
“Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process, and so, therefore, it’s important that the process is allowed to run its natural course.”