Church digs in as Victoria forces disclosure of abuse revealed in confession

The Catholic Church is set to defy new laws that would punish priests with jail time if they refuse to report sexual abuse revealed during confession.

The Victorian government will on Wednesday introduce legislation aimed at forcing priests to break the seal of confession to report child abuse.

The church says that it supports mandatory reporting and encourages victims to report abuse to police, but will not break the seal of confession – regardless of the legislation.

“I uphold the seal of confession but I uphold mandatory reporting as well,” Archbishop Peter Comensoli said in August last year, when the state government first flagged this legal change.

“The principle of the seal of confession is a different question. It has a different reality to it. The practicalities of winding back the seal of confession I think is something that can’t be easily done.”

“There’s been no change in our position,” a spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne said on Tuesday, adding that it would wait to see the legislation before commenting further.

In March this year Pope Francis said no laws could break the seal of confession, in which all priests must keep secret from everyone what they hear in the confessional.

“The sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has, nor may it claim, jurisdiction over it,” he said.

Priests who refuse to report sexual abuse disclosed during confession will face up to three years in jail under the new laws.

The laws will apply to religious and spiritual leaders of all denominations and religions, but will not be retrospective.

The legislation will need to pass both houses of the Victorian Parliament. But both the Andrews government and the opposition promised to scrap exemptions for confessionals in the lead-up to the Victorian election last year.

Police, teachers, doctors, nurses, school counsellors, childcare and youth justice workers have all been required to report child abuse.

In 2012 priests and spiritual leaders were listed as mandatory reporters in Victoria, but any abuse disclosed to them during confession was exempt. The government says they will no longer receive special treatment.

The bill includes amendments to ensure that, under the failure-to-disclose offence in the Crimes Act, disclosures of abuse during religious confession are not exempt and must be reported to police.

Victoria’s move follows a recommendation by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse that states introduce laws to make it a criminal offence to fail to disclose abuse revealed in the confessional.

It comes a fortnight after Tasmania passed similar legislation. In response, the church said the Tasmanian bill would have major implications for religious freedom.

The ACT also recently passed a similar bill, set to take effect from September 1. In response, Canberra Archbishop Christopher Prowse said his priests would not break the seal of confession to report child abuse.

Under an SA law that took effect in October 2018, clergy are legally obliged to report confessions of child sex abuse or face a $10,000 fine.

Successive Melbourne archbishops have resisted the commission’s recommendation on mandatory reporting. Former archbishop Denis Hart said in 2017 he would rather go to jail than report an incidence of child abuse revealed to him during confession.

Victorian Child Protection Minister Luke Donnellan said the reforms would go a long way to ensuring future generations of children were protected from the harm that too many suffered in the past.

“It’s pretty simple: if you think a child is being abused, you have to report it,” he said. “And we’re committed to driving this cultural change to make Victoria safer for our children.”

Canon law researcher Kieran Tapsell said it was not only the rules surrounding confession that prevented clergy divulging abuse, but also a secret directive from the Pope.

A confidential instruction from each pontiff, including Pope Francis, since 1922 has directed bishops to treat canonical crimes including sexual abuse of children with absolute secrecy.

Many expected Pope Francis to amend that directive during a bishops' conference in February, but he did not.