Law passes in Australia requiring priests to break seal of confession, bishop protests
CANBERRA, Australia, June 12, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – A new law in Australia requires Catholic priests in Canberra to break the sacred seal of confession to report a child-sex abuser. The law, which has drawn fierce opposition from Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra, could result in faithful priests being jailed who refuse to comply.
A bill passed on June 7 by the Legislative Assembly of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) extends mandatory reporting of child abuse to cover churches and church activities, including the Catholic confessional. All the political parties in the Assembly supported the measure.
A Roman Catholic priest cannot violate the seal of the confessional, which means that he cannot repeat what he is told by a penitent confessing his or her sins, without incurring automatic excommunication. The Catholic Church teaches that confession is a sacrament, a place of encounter between the Christian and Jesus Christ. The priest who hears the confession is merely Christ’s instrument of forgiveness.
Hitherto the confessional was exempt from ACT’s reporting laws; from March 31, 2019, priests who do not report confessions regarding child abuse to the police risk prosecution.
Archbishop Prowse slammed the new law, saying "priests are bound by a sacred vow to maintain the seal of the confession. Without that vow, who would be willing to unburden themselves of their sins, seek the wise counsel of a priest and receive the merciful forgiveness of God?"
Prowse, the archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, wrote an essay in the Canberra Times last week explaining why legislating against the seal of confession will do much harm and no good.
“First, what sexual abuser would confess to a priest if they thought they would be reported?” he asked.
Prouse explained that it is the common experience of pastors that child abusers don’t confess their crimes to either priests or police. If the seal was removed, the theoretical possibility abusers might confess and be counselled to turn themselves in would be lost.
“Second, the government itself has acknowledged [with] the [Catholic] church’s ‘Truth, Justice and Healing Council... that [...] it [was] difficult to see systematic abuse of the seal of confession,” Prowse wrote. “People who attend confession are sorry for their sins, indicate resolve not to sin again and seek God’s mercy. Pedophiles carry out evil and unspeakable criminal acts. They hide their crimes; they do not self-report.”
Third, he pointed out that priests do not necessarily know the identities of people who confess to them.
Fourth, he said that such a law attacks the inviolate seal of the confessional.
Originally the ACT government invited the archbishop to meet with the Attorney General to discuss the importance of both the protection of children and the seal of the confessional. However, the legislature began to debate the new bill before this meeting could take place. The archbishop decried this loss of opportunity for dialogue, pointing out that the proposed new law threatened religious freedom.
“Religious freedom is the freedom to hold a belief and, secondly, the freedom to manifest belief in community and in public, privately and individually in worship, observance, practice and teaching,” he explained.
“The government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practises and by attempting to change the sacrament of confession while delivering not improvement in the safety of children,” he continued.
The new reporting laws will require priests to report allegations or offenses related to children to the ACT Ombudsman within 30 days.
Two members of the ACT Legislative Assembly thought forcing priests to break the seal of the confessional was a step in the wrong direction.
Andrew Wall, a former student of Marist College, a school notorious in Australia for child sex abuse allegations, said that while some of the child protection measures in the new law were “overdue”, he objected to its extension to the confessional.
According to the Canberra Times, Wall said forcing priests to break the confessional seal “significantly impinges on an individual’s freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of individual rights.”
Vicki Dunne, the second member, pointed out that a priest who breaks the seal of confession incurs an excommunication that can be lifted only by the pope. In addition, it would undermine Catholics’ trust in the "sacred, sacramental and sacrosanct" rite.
“We need to stop and think twice before we pass legislation that requires Catholic priest to break the seal of the confession,” she had warned.
Note: The original headline "Australia passes law requiring priests to break seal of confession, bishop protests" has been changed July 30, 2018 to avoid the confusion that the law is country wide. The law passed only in the Australian Capital Territory.