Catholic priests in the Australian state of Tasmania could face jail time if they fail to report sexual abuse disclosed during the sacrament of confession, ABC news (Australia) has reported.
Draft legislation put forth by the government of the island would make mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse a criminal matter for religious leaders. Many public sector workers already face fines if they fail to report suspected abuse, according to ABC.
The Tasmanian proposal comes amid various attempts by authorities throughout Australia to mandate the breaking of the confessional seal to report cases of child sex abuse, and pushback from Catholics in the country.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse released a report in December 2017 that included 409 recommendations aimed at curbing child sex abuse in the country. The Royal Commission recommended to all Australian states that their laws governing child abuse reporting “should not exempt persons in religious ministry from being required to report knowledge or suspicions formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession.”
The Australian bishops’ conference on Aug. 31 responded positively to nearly all of the Royal Commission’s recommendations, but defended the confessional seal.
Archbishop Julian Porteous of Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, argued that “perpetrators of [sexual abuse] very rarely seek out confession and if mandatory reporting of confessions were required they would almost certainly not confess,” as quoted by The Australian.
The Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly in Canberra passed a law in June requiring religious groups to report any allegations, offences or convictions of child abuse within 30 days. The state of South Australia adopted a similar law, mandating a fine for failing to report abuse, which took effect this week.
Should the proposed legislation pass, Tasmania will become the second Australian state to change their laws based on the Royal Commission’s guidelines.
In July, the attorney general of Victoria declined to accept the royal commission’s recommendentation that it require priests to break the confessional seal to report cases of child sex abuse.
The Code of Canon Law states that “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” A priest who intentionally violates the seal incurs an automatic excommunication.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “every priest who hears confessions is bound under severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him,” due to the “delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons.”
Fr. Michael Whelan, a parish priest at St. Patrick’s Church in Sydney, was quoted in local news in June as saying that he, along with other priests, would be “willing to go to jail” rather than break the seal of confession. When asked if the Church was above the law, Whelan said “absolutely not” and said he would only be protecting religious freedom.
Clerics are not the only critics of the new legislation. Andrew Wall, a member of the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly, said forcing priests to break the seal of confession oversteps an individual’s “freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of religious rights.”