Catholic leadership in Australia opposes mandatory reporting for priests when they learn of sexual abuse inside the confessional, the church said Friday, adding another layer to the child abuse scandal that continues to plague the Catholic Church across the globe.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC), the country’s top Catholic body, said it did not accept a recommendation from an official inquiry which would force priests by law to report abuse to the police when they hear about it in confession.
Laws making it a crime for priests to withhold information about abuse heard within the confessional have been introduced in two of the country’s eight states and territories, and others are considering doing the same.
“This proposed law is ill-conceived, and impracticable, it won’t make children safer, and it will most likely undermine religious freedom,” ACBC President Mark Coleridge told reporters in Sydney, referring to the sanctity of the confessional.
The seal of confession was “a non-negotiable element of our religious life and embodies an understanding of the believer and God”, Coleridge added.
The church’s stance puts religious freedom up against protecting people — particularly children — from abuse and potential coverups that have brought the church to where it is today.
Andrew Singleton, professor of philosophy at Deakin University in the state of Victoria, said the bishops’ response reflected a disconnect in Australia between religious and secular sensibilities.
“Their stance is the classic tension between canon law, and their sense that there is some sort of higher, transcendent entity, and common law,” Singleton said.
The Australian government spent five years investigating child sex abuse within churches and other religious institutions in an effort to grasp the full extent of the issue:
The inquiry heard seven percent of Catholic priests in Australia between 1950 and 2010 had been accused of child sex crimes and nearly 1,100 people had filed child sexual assault claims against the Anglican Church over 35 years.