MELBOURNE, Australia (ChurchMilitant.com) - An Australian committee is attacking the Catholic seal of confession, recommending that priests be criminally prosecuted if they fail to report crimes against minors they hear about in the confessional.
Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (RC) published 85 criminal justice recommendations Monday, including the recommendation to impose criminal charges on priests who fail to report confessions of perpetrators to police.
The RC specifically recommends that "there should be no excuse, protection nor privilege in relation to religious confessions." They cite instances of perpetrators confessing abuse who went on to commit additional crimes, only to seek forgiveness in the confessional again.
Archbishop Denis J. Hart of Melbourne and president of the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference released a statement Monday, reacting to the recommendations:
Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest. It is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognized in the law of Australia and many other countries. It must remain so here in Australia. Outside of this, all offenses against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.
The RC admits that applying "civil law on the practice of religious confession would undermine the principle of freedom of religion," but says "that right is not absolute."
"The right to practice one's religious beliefs must accommodate civil society's obligation to provide for the safety of all," it claims. "Reporting information relevant to child sexual abuse to the police is critical to ensuring the safety of children."
A statement from the Truth, Justice and Healing Council, established in 2013 as a way for the Australian Church to "speak as one" to the RC, says that the Church and the council have "consistently argued that these reporting provisions should not apply to the confessional."
Francis Sullivan, CEO of the council, says that for child abusers to be forgiven, they must be prepared to "demonstrate their repentance" that would "require they turn themselves into the police."
While the RC does not have the power to change the laws, activists are calling this a huge victory, as similar laws were enacted in the state of Victoria based on RC's Betrayal of Trust inquiry. That law shifted the burden of proof from the victim to the organization, requiring the entity to prove what they did to protect children. This law makes it easier for victims to win lawsuits against organizations where child abuse took place.
"If ultimately there are new laws that oblige the disclosure of information heard in the confessional, priests, like everybody else, will be expected to obey the law or suffer the consequences," Sullivan remarks. "If they do not, this will be a personal, conscience decision on the part of the priest that will have to be dealt with by the authorities in accordance with the new law ... "
In 2011, Abp. Hart said, "I have no hesitation in stating that priests will guard the sanctity of the seal of confession with their very lives. They would certainly undergo imprisonment rather than violate it."
Canon law states that priests would automatically excommunicate themselves if they were to violate the seal of confession. Only the pope could revoke that excommunication.
The new recommendations also include a Failure to Report Offense aimed at third parties not directly involved in the abuse. A clause is included that imposes an obligation to report the abuse when the third party knew, suspected or even should have suspected that abuse was taking place.
"We appreciate that including 'should have suspected' imposes criminal liability for a failure to report a suspicion that the person did not form," the RC states, but rationalizes the law to prosecute top managers of institutions who deny knowledge of abuse "in circumstances where their denials are very difficult to accept."
It is unclear whether these changes would have an effect on the ongoing case against Cdl. George Pell, who has been accused of historic sex offenses. Cardinal Pell has vigorously denied the charges, declaring that he will be pleading "not guilty" to the charges in a preliminary hearing in October.