CANBERRA, July 22, 2011 ( – With Ireland considering legislation to force priests to break the seal of confession, the idea has been picked up by an Australian senator. Citing the Irish example, Australian independent senator Nicholas Xenophon yesterday called for the government to make it illegal for priests to refuse to reveal cases of sex abuse disclosed in the confessional.

“There is no contest when it comes to protecting the innocence of a child or maintaining a religious practice,” he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday. “Why should someone be absolved of their sins … when it comes to child abuse because they’ve got a pat on the back from their priest?”

Senator Xenophon expressed support for a similar move in 2003, when he was in the South Australian Parliament, but the effort was not supported then by the major parties.

“No church should be complicit in the cover-up of child abuse just so some pedophile can try and clear their conscience,” he continued.

“The laws of the land should always trump religious practices. The protection of children should come before any other consideration. Freedom of religion is one thing, but it shouldn’t mean anyone is free to ignore their obligations to report this most serious of crimes.”

Australia’s federal attorney general said that the matter falls under the jurisdiction of local state government. Xenophon responded saying he would write to the attorneys general around Australia seeking support for the idea.

The call for priests to be forced to break the seal of confession has met with a cold response from at least one Australian bishop. Peter Connors, bishop of Ballarat in the southern state of Victoria, said there is no way that any priest would betray the seal, an act for which the penalty under Church law is automatic excommunication.

“I would like to think parliamentarians would respect to the law of the church on this matter,” Bishop Connors said. “If priests were required to report these things, the seal of confession would be broken.”

Under canon law, a priest may not mention, even to the same penitent outside the confessional, anything revealed to him under the seal. The same canon states that any Catholic, whether lay or clerical, using information obtained from confession is also subject to the same penalty, including Catholic lawyers prosecuting sex abuse cases.

The secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Father Brian Lucas, backed up the bishop and criticized Xenophon proposal.

“His proposal does nothing to protect children and flies in the face of a fundamental right of people to practice their religion,” Father Lucas said. “No Catholic priest . . .  would ever betray a penitent.”

“Priests have gone to their death” rather than break the seal, he added.

Although elected as a left-leaning independent, Xenophon, known for his opposition to legalized gambling, has been in a powerful “balance of power” position in the Senate, one he shares with the Green party.

This week, as Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny launched an unprecedented attack against the Vatican, accusing them of being complicit in the cover-up of sexual abuse by clergy, Xenophon wrote to Kenny congratulating him on the move to abolish legal protections for clergy.