Catholic archbishop says he would rather go to prison than report child abuse heard in confession

'There are some matters which are of a higher order, things to do with God'

Chris Baynes
Wednesday 16 August 2017 12:21 BST
Melbourne archbishop: We are 'totally committed' to forgiving sins told in the confessional booth

A Catholic archbishop has said he is prepared to be jailed for failing to report child sex abuse if it is revealed to him during confession.

Denis Hart, Archbishop of Melbourne, insisted confession was "a spiritual encounter with God through the priest" and was "of a higher order" than criminal law.

His comments came after the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse said there should be "no excuse, protection nor privilege" for clergy who failed to alert police of abuse.

It recommended priests should face criminal charges for failing to report information heard during confession, one of 85 sweeping changes to the criminal justice system proposed in a report on Monday.

"We understand the significance of religious confession - in particular, the inviolability of the confessional seal to people of some faiths, particularly the Catholic faith", said the report.

"However, we heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in religious confession, by both victims and perpetrators.

"We are satisfied that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt."

But Archbishop Hart, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, called for the confessional seal to remain protected by law.

"Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest," he said in a statement.

"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."

Asked on Tuesday if he would rather go to prison than breach the seal of confession, he told ABC Radio Melbourne: "I've said that I would.

"I believe that this is an absolutely sacrosanct communication of a higher order."

He added: "I would go to extreme lengths outside of the confessional to make sure that the law was observed. But there are some matters which are of a higher order, things to do with God."

His stance was backed by other high-profile clerics, including his Brisbane counterpart Mark Coleridge and priest and lawyer Frank Brennan, who he said he would "conscientiously refuse to comply with the law" if it was changed.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Father Brennan suggested requiring clerics to report abuse allegations would make children less safe because it "may take away the one possibility that a sex offender will repent and turn himself in".

But lawyer Vivian Walker, who has represented child sex abuse victims, welcomed the commission's recommendations.

"I think it's about time the Catholic Church was dragged out of the dark ages," she said.

"We can no longer think about sexual offending against children as some kind of forgivable sin."

In its submission to the commission, the Catholic Church's Trust Justice and Healing Council argued requiring priests to disclose information heard during confession would undermine freedom of religion.

“The whole concept of confession in the Catholic Church is built on repentance, forgiveness and penance,” said Frances Sullivan, the council's chief executive.

"Part of this forgiveness process, certainly in the case of a child sex-abuser, would normally require they turn themselves in to the police."

But the commission's report stressed: "The right to practise 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.

"Reporting information relevant to child sexual abuse to the police is critical to ensuring the safety of children."

Australia's Parliament will decide whether to enact the changes contained in the report.

Archbishop Hart's predecessor at the Diocese of Melbourne, Cardinal George Pell, is due to face trial on multiple sex charges later this year.

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