Australian Law Demands Priests Break Seal of Confession

News: World News
by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  •  February 18, 2020   

Clerics must choose between prison or excommunication

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MELBOURNE, Victoria, Australia ( - Priests in the Australian state of Victoria must now choose between being jailed for keeping the seal of confession or being excommunicated for breaking it.

A state law took effect on Monday that forces priests in the state to report knowledge of child sexual abuse gained from the sacrament of confession or face up to three years in prison. Victoria's Attorney-General Jill Hennessy asserts that priests can no longer use the confessional seal as a reason for not reporting child abuse.

"From [Monday], our promise to put the safety of children ahead of the secrecy of the confession is in full effect and there is no excuse for people who fail to report abuse," remarked Hennessy.

Any Catholic priest revealing confessional matter for any reason, however, is automatically excommunicated as per Catholic Church law.

The law, titled the Children Legislation Amendment Act of 2019 (CLAA), was passed in September but only came into force this week. The CLAA states its main goals are "to include persons in religious ministry as mandatory reporters" and to clarify that any "mandatory reporter is not able to rely on the religious confession privilege" to avoid reporting child sexual abuse.

I have no hesitation in stating that priests will guard the sanctity of the seal of confession with their very lives.

The law followed a recommendation to violate the seal detailed in a 2017 report by Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (RC). In its report, the RC recommended that "there should be no excuse, protection nor privilege in relation to religious confessions." The report cites instances when repeat perpetrators confessed to sexual abuse without being outed by the priest hearing the confessions.

Victoria Attorney-General Jill Hennessy

In a run-up to the law, Melbourne's former Abp. Denis Hart affirmed that priests would rather die than reveal confessional matter.

"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," assured Hart in 2011.

The current archbishop of Melbourne, Abp. Peter Comensoli, likewise declared in September that he would keep confessional secrecy regardless of any civil laws. Comensoli said he would first urge the penitent to tell law enforcement himself. If the penitent refused, however, he would then ask the person to tell him again about the crime but outside of the confessional.

If the one confessing wouldn't do either of these things, said Comensoli, there was nothing he could do.

"Personally, I'll keep the seal," he said.

All other Australian states and territories have either passed or pledged to pass similar laws. In the run-up to Tasmania passing similar legislation in September, Hobart Abp. Julian Porteous told Australian media that priests are "unable" to comply. He foresaw that revealing confessional matter would simply keep people away from the sacrament of confession.

Personally, I'll keep the seal.

"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," said Porteous.

He added, "This will deny priests the opportunity to encourage offenders to report themselves to police."

Abp. Christopher Prowse

In July, Porteous related that Pope Francis was standing firm on Church law that forbids priests to break the seal of confession for any reason.

Repeating the words of the Pope, Porteous said, "The sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has jurisdiction over it, nor can lay any claim to it."

Porteous further affirmed that the Vatican is resolute in the matter.

"The Apostolic Penitentiary, one of three tribunals in the Roman Curia, which has competence in this matter, produced a document following requests from a number of bishops in different parts of the world," the archbishop said. "The document confirmed the traditional Catholic teaching."

He then reviewed existing Canon Law outlawing any violation of confessional secrecy for any reason:

The confessor is never allowed, for any reason whatsoever, "to betray the penitent with words or in any other way" (can. 983, §1), as well as "it is totally forbidden for the confessor to make use of the knowledge acquired from confession when it might harm the penitent, even excluding any danger of revelation" (can. 984, §1).

A similar law in the Australian Capital Territory took effect in March. Speaking out against the upcoming law in 2018, Canberra's Abp. Christopher Prowse said the law would simply keep people away from the confessional.

"Sadly, breaking the sacred seal of confession won't prevent abuse and it won't help our ongoing efforts to improve the safety of children in Catholic institutions," Prowse wrote.

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