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New Australian law forces priests to break seal of confession

Martin M. Barillas Martin M. Barillas Follow Martin

MELBOURNE, Australia, September 11, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) -- A state legislature in Australia passed a law on Tuesday that would impose sentences on priests who fail to report child abusers who come to them for the sacrament of confession.

New legislation passed the upper house of the Victoria state parliament on Tuesday evening with bipartisan support. On Wednesday morning, state premier Daniel Andrews said the intent of the bill is to send a message to the Vatican and impose requirements on sacramental ministers to report abuse or mistreatment of minors, regardless of how they learn about it.

The bill amended the Children, Youth and Families Act of 2005 and made priests and representatives of various religions mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse. According to the amendment, it defines "person in religious ministry” as “person appointed, ordained or otherwise recognised as a religious or spiritual leader in a religious institution.” Examples included rabbis, imams, monks, pastors, nuns, priests, religious brothers and sisters, and even Salvation Army officers.  

"The most important thing is to send a message that the law is to be taken seriously; if people don’t obey the law, then the penalties are very significant," Andrews said, according to The Age. “The culture is one where people have taken the laws and their responsibilities in terms of mandatory reporting very seriously." 

"I've made it very clear that the law of our state is written by the Parliament of Victoria, it's not made in Rome, and there are very significant penalties for anybody and everybody who breaks the Victorian law," said Andrews, who is reportedly Catholic. He introduced the legislation in early August.

He told reporters upon the passage of the bill: “There’s been some controversy in recent weeks and months about churches, particularly the Catholic Church. We believe this is exactly what needed to happen.”

He went on to say, “The seal of the confessional, no one, no politician, no priest … has any reason, any right … to put their faith, or the laws of their church above the protection of kids. That's the most important thing.”

Priests who inform authorities of what they learn in confession are subject to automatic excommunication, according to the canon law of the Church. In the laws of the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, Canon 983 states, “The sacramental seal is inviolable. Accordingly, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other fashion.” 

In 2017, an Australian priest was excommunicated for breaking this law. Fr. Ezinwanne Igbo, a native of Nigeria, was found to have broken the seal of confession, after a Church investigation and more than a dozen complaints. The sanction can, however, be lifted by the Pope. Excommunication means that the priest can no longer celebrate the Mass and the sacraments, or can he receive the sacraments. 

Canon 984 states that a confessor is “forbidden to use knowledge acquired in confession to the detriment of the penitent, while it also says that Church authorities may not use, “for the purpose of external governance,” knowledge of sins that come from the hearing of confession. 

While the new laws would make priests mandatory reporters, as are physicians, police, teachers, nurses, school counselors and youth justice workers, lawyers remain exempt.

After the vote, Child Protection Minister Luke Donnellan said, "The special treatment for churches has ended and child abuse must be reported."

Victoria state Attorney General Jill Hennessy rejected objections that the law would endanger religious liberty. According to a press release, she said, “I don’t think in contemporary and mainstream times, knowing what we know now, that we can do anything other than say the rights of children trump anyone’s religious views.”

The legislation in Victoria came as a response to the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, which recommended in 2017 that clergy and confession no longer be exempt from mandatory reporting. South Australia and the Northern Territory have introduced similar mandatory reporting laws. Tasmania and western Australia are expected to do the same. 

Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne has stated in the past that he is ready to go to prison rather than break the seal of confession. 

In August, he said, "For Catholics, confession is a religious encounter of a deeply personal nature. It deserves confidentiality."

Father Bob Maguire of Melbourne said in response to the legislation, "They'll have to get the prisons ready." He told the media that his fellow priests will refuse to report abuse to police. He added that while he understands the motivations behind the law, he asserted that “restorative justice,” rather than “retributive justice,” for sexual predators, is preferable. 

In August, Archbishop Comensoli wrote to his flock saying he was committed to safeguarding children and was working closely with Victoria’s Commission for Children and Young People. “I am strongly committed to reporting to the appropriate authorities, and have already exercised that duty here in Melbourne. I am also strongly committed to upholding the seal of confession. I have begun conversations with our public authorities about finding a way in which these two principles can be upheld, for the sake of the safety of all. Tomorrow I will be meeting with the Clergy of the Archdiocese, where I will reiterate my commitments and priorities, and seek their full cooperation in our common task ahead.”

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