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Australian law forces priests to violate seal of confessional

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A new law requiring priests to break the seal of the confessional is “premature and ill-judged”, the Archbishop of Brisbane has said.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian bishops’ conference, said the law in Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was “seemingly driven by a desire to penalise the Catholic Church without properly considering the ramifications of the decision”.

Priests in Canberra now face criminal charges for maintaining the seal of the confessional where someone confesses to child sexual abuse under new legislation passed by the ACT assembly. The move has sparked fears that other Australian states and territories could introduce similar requirements.

Under Church law, the seal of the confessional is absolute and any priest who violates it faces excommunication.

“What sexual abuser would confess to a priest if they thought they would be reported?” Canberra and Goulburn Archbishop Christopher Prowse said. “If the seal is removed, the remote possibility that they would confess and so could be counselled to report is gone.”

“The Government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices and by attempting to change the sacrament of confession while delivering no improvement in the safety of children,” he added.

Archbishop Coleridge said that the legislation also raised important practical questions about it could be implemented. “It’s the sort of legislation that could be drawn up and passed only by people who know little or nothing of the way the sacrament works in practice,” he said.

“One can only hope that other jurisdictions will be more considered in their decisions and more willing to listen to the voices of Catholic clergy and people than the ACT authorities seem to have been.”