The report called for legislation to criminalise priests who fail to break the seal of the confessional

Priests who do not inform the police after learning about child abuse in confession should face criminal charges, an Australian inquiry has said.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended all states and territories in the country should introduce legislation to punish priests for not breaking the seal of the confessional.

“The right to practice one’s religious beliefs must accommodate civil society’s obligation to provide for the safety of all and, in particular, children’s safety from sexual abuse,” the commission wrote.

“Institutions directed to caring for and providing services for children, including religious institutions, must provide an environment where children are safe from sexual abuse. Reporting information relevant to child sexual abuse to the police is critical to ensuring the safety of children.”

The recommendation will likely be strongly resisted by the Church, which has always guarded the absolute confidentiality of confession.

Under canon law, priests may never break the seal of the confessional, even under threat of death. Any priest who breaks the seal faces automatic excommunication.

Archbishop of Melbourne Denis J Hart said in a statement: “Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest. It is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognised in the Law of Australia and many other countries. It must remain so here in Australia.

“Outside of this all offences against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.”