Australia

Catholics defend the secrecy of confession

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Related Story: Government accepts 104 royal commission recommendations, including confession rule

The Catholic Church is holding firm against calls to lift the veil of secrecy on confession amid calls from victims and advocates to force priests to report alleged abusers.

Key points:

  • Australian Catholics Bishops Conference president Mark Coleridge says lifting the seal will not make children safer
  • Victims and advocates want to force priests to report alleged abusers
  • Former priest Paul Collins says the clergy must comply with the law if it is changed

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered the Federal Government's response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse in Canberra on Wednesday.

Last year 122 recommendations were delivered to the government, including calls to throw out the sanctity of the confessional.

In a statement posted to YouTube, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference President, Archbishop Mark Coleridge dismissed those demands.

"The church doesn't want to protect criminals, it wants children to be safe from them," he said.

"And the church wants measures that really make environments safer for children.

"But there's nothing to suggest that legal abolition of the seal will help in that regard."

That has outraged advocates of abuse victims, who believe the church is simply trying to shield alleged abusers.

"There is nothing more important than the best interests and safety and protection of children," said Hetty Johnson, founder and executive director of Bravehearts.

"Any institution that would put its own culture, or its own laws, or its own processes above the best interests of children is an organisation that no longer deserves any kind of support."

The power to change mandatory reporting of sex abuse allegations rests in the first instance with the states and territories before the Commonwealth investigates any federal law changes, Attorney-General Christian Porter says.

"The process will be that the states have agreed to harmonise their laws, so in effect to accept the recommendation of the royal commission," Mr Porter said.

"That process will take a little time.

"At the end of that process, a question does arise for the Commonwealth."

Breaking the seal of confession not a silver bullet

A fierce critic of the Catholic Church's handling of sex abuse allegations, former priest Paul Collins said there had a serious lack of accountability within the church when dealing with child sexual abuse.

He argued forcing priests to reveal abuse allegations could be pursued.

"If the state, whether it be the Commonwealth Government or the State Governments, pass a law for mandatory reporting, then priests should be bound by that," he told the ABC.

"If they refuse to report, then they should be subject to the strictures of the laws."

But Mr Collins said such legislative changes may not have the desired effect.

"The simple reality is that the caricature of Catholics all running off to confession all the time is nothing more than a caricature," he argued.

"The vast majority of practicing Catholics in Australia have not been near the confessional in 30 years, and that includes myself.

"It would be most unlikely, especially if mandatory reporting came in, that any abusive priest or person working for the Catholic Church would be going to confession."

That sentiment is echoed by Associate Professor Keith Thompson, from the Catholic University of Notre Dame.

He said there was research from countries such as Ireland that suggested child abusers who did confess to priests may not have ever given a full account of their crimes.

"People who commit abuse against children, particularly sexual abuse, don't confess as a general rule because they don't perceive that what they're doing is a sin in the first place," he said.

"They think in a perverse way that they are socialising the children, that they're befriending them, that they're helping them grow up and become adults.

"There's a belief that if we take away this privilege, there's a belief that we would find the goose that lays the golden egg — as if every single incidence of child abuse is confessed, and all we have to do is get the priest to tell all these confessions and save every child."

The states, territories and institutions are yet to formally respond to the royal commission's findings.

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