Australian Catholic Church rejects calls for priests to report child abuse confessions

VATICAN CITY — Australia’s Catholic Church has rejected calls for priests to be compelled to report child abuse revealed in confessionals.

The Church said Friday it would accept “98%” of recommendations made by a high-level government inquiry into child sexual abuse, which uncovered shocking accounts of widespread abuse inside Australian religious institutions.

But church leaders said that they would maintain the sanctity of confession, arguing to remove it would infringe on religious liberties.

“The only recommendation we can’t accept is removing the seal of confession,” Sister Monica Cavanagh, president of Catholic Religious Australia said at a press conference.

The Church’s decision to reject the recommendation remains a huge stumbling block for the institution to regain the trust of the public, which has been riven by child abuse scandals in Australia and abroad.

It comes amid a tumultuous week for the Catholic Church as pressure builds on Pope Francis to ensure abusers within the church are held to account.

Addressing crowds in Dublin, Ireland last weekend, the Pontiff spoke of his shame over the “appalling crimes” committed in recent decades and called for forgiveness from those who had suffered.

Royal Commission findings

The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard testimony from more than 8,000 people, who gave evidence in private sessions, over a period of five years.

During the inquiry it emerged that 7% of priests in Australia had been accused of abusing children, including over 40% of brothers in some orders.

A total of 2,559 referrals were made to authorities, including the police, as a result of the $383 million (AU$500 million) probe.

The final report delivered in December included 189 new recommendations to address a “serious failure” by Australian institutions to protect children, including 20 for the Catholic Church alone.

While the church said it had accepted almost all of the recommendations, it added that a large number would be only be put into effect pending approval from the Vatican. That includes one recommendation to consider voluntary celibacy for priests.

Peter Gogarty, a child abuse survivor, told ABC Radio he thought there was a bit of “clever play on words” going on in the Church’s response to the recommendation.

“A great many of these recommendation it has said that it accepts in principle but subject to it doing more work or research … It’s not as rosy as the Church has tried to paint it, but as I said I remain cautiously optimistic that we are certainly in a more child safe environment,” Gogarty told local media.

Seal of confession is ‘inviolable’

The one recommendation it said it wouldn’t adopt was the suggestion that priests be compelled to report to authorities any admissions of abuse made by priests in the confession box.

Sister Cavanagh said the Church was “deeply committed to both child safety and seal of confession, which we consider inviolable. We don’t accept that safeguarding (children’s safety) and the seal are mutually exclusive.”

Under Roman Catholic law, priests risk being excommunicated if they divulge what’s been said in confession, either by their words or actions.

“The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason,” according to the Vatican.

Mandatory reporting differs between Australia’s states and territories but in most places professional carers must tell authorities about suspected cases of child abuse.

Advocates say the “seal of confession” shows the church puts itself ahead of children.

“I think it’s appalling that the Catholic Church is not putting the safety of Australian children as their number one priority … We don’t live under canon law,” Leonie Sheedy, chief executive of Care Leavers Australasia Network told CNN.

Sheedy said the Australian public was “fed up” with the church, and it was “insulting” that Australia’s Catholic leaders said they had to refer back to the Vatican for approval to make the reforms.

“Why can’t they make decisions themselves and put the safety of Australian children first?” she said.

In a statement released June, the Church said it “welcomed” the report and had already begun its work to respond to the recommendations “including measures to standardize approaches to child safety and research to help prevent child sexual abuse in the future.”

Groundbreaking report

The landmark Royal Commission report described the abuse of children in Australia’s religious institutions as a “national tragedy.”

“We now know that countless thousands of children have been sexually abused in many institutions in Australia. In many institutions, multiple abusers have sexually abused children,” the report said.

“We must accept that institutional child sexual abuse has been occurring for generations.”

At the time of its release, McClellan, stated that the issue of child sex abuse was an ongoing issue.

“The sexual abuse of children is not just a problem from the past. Child sexual abuse in institutions continues today,” he said. “In some case studies into schools the alleged abuse was so recent that the children are still attending school.”

Archbishop Mark Coleridge, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said that while the Church would not remove the seal of the confessional, it was willing to admit the failures of the past and change to regain the public’s trust.

“We make the pledge ‘never again.’ There will be no cover up. We will respond quickly to accusations, improve governance structure, be more transparent and we will listen,” he said.

“We know that only actions not words can rebuild trust, and until trust is rebuilt all the apologies in the world will miss the mark.” ​