Priests who fail to report child abuse revealed in the confessional will be jailed, according to a new law passed by the government of Victoria on Tuesday.
The Children Legislation Amendment Act 2019 carries a sentence of up to three years for a priest who fails to break the seal of confession in the case of a child abuser.
The Australian law begins by categorically stating that its “main purposes” are “to include persons in religious ministry as mandatory reporters under that Act” and “to clarify that a mandatory reporter is not able to rely on the religious confession privilege” to avoid the reporting requirement in previous legislation.
Under Victorian law, mandated reporters must report child abuse if, in the course of practising their profession, they hold a reasonable belief a child has been harmed, or is of significant risk of harm. The harm includes physical or sexual abuse.
The new legislation abrogates the Crimes Act 1958 and the Evidence Act 2008 ending the exemption given to clergy under the “religious confessions privilege.”
“We promised to put the safety of children ahead of the secrecy of the confession and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Attorney-General Jill Hennessy asserted, adding, “I don’t think in contemporary and mainstream times, knowing what we know now, that we can do anything other than say the rights of children trump anyone’s religious views.
“We promised to put the safety of children ahead of the secrecy of the confession.”
Law professor and legal commentator Andrew Tettenborn described the legislation as “pretty alarming and unenforceable.”
“It will lead to widespread, if not total, disobedience. This is gesture politics,” he told Church Militant.
“Australians are great travellers. As a Roman Catholic, you are not required to canonically confess very often: Victorians may well take advantage of fleeting visits to family and friends in New South Wales or Queensland, which don’t have such laws, to confess,” he said, noting:
The problem, if any, with the old law is not an enormously serious one, since (a) a priest can always be cagey about giving absolution unless the penitent does something about the harm he’s caused; (b) the rule only applies to confession strictly construed. Even the church isn’t too unhappy about priests passing on to the police other mentions of abuse outside the confession box.
Under the new law nominated professional groups are legally required to report a reasonable belief of physical or sexual child abuse to authorities.
The legislation defines “person in religious ministry” as anyone “appointed, ordained or otherwise recognised as a religious or spiritual leader in a religious institution.”
Such persons include church elder, deacon, granthi, imam, religious minister, monk, nun, pastor, priest, pujari, rabbi, religious brother or sister and Salvation Army officer.
The requirement applies to a person in religious ministry, “even if the person’s belief was first formed before the commencement” of the new legislation.
“It’s pretty simple: if you think a child is being abused, you have to report it. And we’re committed to driving this cultural change to make Victoria safer for our children,” insisted Luke Donnellan, Minister for Child Protection.
The Labour government has already expanded mandated reporter groups to include police, teachers, medical practitioners, registered psychologists, midwives, nurses, school counsellors and early childhood and youth justice workers.
The Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli has said he would go to jail rather than violate the seal of confession.
He said if someone confessed abusing a child during confession he would persuade the penitent to go to the authorities and “fess up” outside the confessional so he could report it.
“Confession doesn’t place people above the law.”
“The presumption here is that I know who’s there in front of me. That’s not the practice of confession,” Abp. Comensoli said.
“Confession doesn’t place people above the law. Priests should be mandatory reporters, but in a similar way to protections to the lawyer/client relationship and protection for journalists’ sources,” he explained.
“They’ll have to get the prisons ready,” declared Melbourne’s best-known Catholic priest, Father Bob Maguire, on Wednesday.
“We’d like to ensure the community is safeguarded against another attack and the person who’s the predator is dealt with by restorative justice, not by retributive justice,” he commented.
The new law follows the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2017, which revealed the many failures of churches to report allegations of child abuse.
Several Australian state governments, including New South Wales and South Australia, have already passed laws legally obliging priests to report confessions of child sexual abuse, and Western Australia and Tasmania have committed to doing so.
The Catholic Church upholds the seal of confession as sacrosanct. Canon 983:1 defines the “sacramental seal” as “inviolable” calling it “absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion.”
“An interpreter, if there is one, is also obliged to observe this secret, as are all others who in any way whatever have come to a knowledge of sins from a confession.”
According to Canon 984:1, “The confessor is wholly forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent, even when all danger of disclosure is excluded.”
Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews is a leftwing Labour Party politician who announced earlier this year he would ban reparative therapy for homosexuals in Victoria, making it the first state in Australia to outlaw the form of counselling.
“No religion, no church, no person, no priest, no politician is free to do anything other than put the safety of our kids first,” said Andrews, who claims to be a practising Catholic.
“I’ve made it very clear that the law of our state is written by the Parliament of Victoria, it’s not made in Rome and there are very significant penalties for anybody and everybody who breaks the Victorian law,” he declared.
Andrews tabled the “compromise” Abortion bill to decriminalise abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in 2008 when he was health minister.
(Originally published in Church Militant. To comment on this piece, click here)