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Australian archbishop: We’re ‘unable’ to comply with law requiring priest to break seal of confession

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HOBART, Tasmania, September 13, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) -- Archbishop Julian Porteous of Tasmania said Catholic priests are “unable” to comply with new laws that would require them to break the seal of confession by informing authorities about people who confess sins of child sexual abuse.  

Passed earlier this week, the law turns ministers of religion into mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse while also requiring that anyone with knowledge of abuse report it to police or face prison time.

“I believe the Tasmanian bill will not strengthen protections for children and vulnerable people, but it will have the opposite effect — as offenders will be less likely to come forward to confess serious sins for fear of being reported,” Archbishop Porteous said, according to Australia’s ABC News. “This will deny priests the opportunity to encourage offenders to report themselves to police.”

According to Canon law, any priest who violates the seal of the confessional is subject to automatic excommunication that may be lifted only by the pope. 

Porteous said the Catholic Church in Tasmania is “committed to safeguarding children and the vulnerable.”

“It is continually working to ensure that priests and all who work for the Church understand their obligations before the law to report on matters of child sexual abuse," he added.

He emphasized that the Church supports the police and courts in bringing perpetrators to justice.

Earlier this year, before the bill was approved by Tasmania’s Legislative Council on Tuesday, Porteous wrote that the pope “made it clear there can be no exceptions to the inviolability of the seal of confession.” 

Describing the gravity for priests who would seek to violate the confessional, he added, “Priests and all who work for the Church understand their obligations before the law to report on matters of child sexual abuse. Priests, however, cannot comply with law that would require them to violate their commitment to the Church’s consistent teaching on the inviolability of the sacramental seal. As Archbishop, it is my duty to uphold Catholic teaching on this matter.”

“Governments can give all sorts of justifications for wanting to know what has been confessed to a priest, from the most noble (the protection of innocent human life) to the most base (the maintenance of political power),” the archbishop said. “But the reality is that saints, like St. Mateo Correa Magallanes and St. John Nepomucene, who gave their life defending the seal of the confessional, knew that no matter what the reason was given by government, no matter how noble their intentions, breaking the seal of the confessional would constitute the end of the sacrament. If one priest was to break it, the faithful would lose confidence that what they confess could be made public or used against them.”

Historian and laicized priest Paul Collins said, according to ABC News, that he does not believe the laws are effective. He claimed that only a “tiny minority” of Catholics make use of the sacrament of confession, adding that it is “extraordinarily unlikely” that a pedophile would go to confession. 

"It'd be very difficult to enforce these laws for the simple reason the priest will say nothing because he's bound by the seal of confession, and presumably the paedophile will not be broadcasting abroad what he's said in confession,” Collins said.

According to the new law, anyone with knowledge of child sex abuse must report it to police or possibly face as many as 21 years in prison or fines up to AUS $3,360.

Legislation in Tasmania, the Northern Territory, South Australia, Victoria, and Australian Capital Territory was approved after receiving recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. Lawyers and journalists, under the new law, are not required to report what they learn to police.

When a similar law went into effect in nearby Victoria state, Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said he would rather go to prison than reveal what a penitent may have said in the confessional. Nonetheless, he said he would advise the penitent to repeat the confession outside of the confessional so that he could advise police. 

“Confession doesn’t place people above the law. Priests should be mandatory reporters, but in a similar way to protections to the lawyer/client relationship and protection for journalists’ sources,” he said, according to Mail Online.

As it stands now, police, nurses, teachers, counselors, youth justice workers, and ministers of religion are all required to report their suspicions of child abuse. 

When a law was passed in Western Australia earlier this year requiring priests to reveal penitents’ confession, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth said in a statement, according to School Governance, that “the Sacrament of Penance (also called Reconciliation or Confession) is an essential dimension of our faith. … Put simply, a person does not confess his or her sins to the priest, but rather to Christ, who is present in and through the ministry of the priest. The priest has no right to reveal anything he hears in the confessional because in a very real sense what is revealed is made known only to God.”

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