Confession challenge made law in Victoria, Tasmania

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The sacrament of reconciliation is depicted in a stained-glass window. Photo: CNS, Gregory Shemitz

Priests in Tasmania and Victoria will now face possible jail terms if they do not report information regarding child sexual abuse made during the sacrament of confession.

In Tasmania, mandatory reporting laws passed on 11 September require anyone with knowledge of child sexual abuse, including priests in the hearing of confessions, to report the crime to police. The maximum penalty is 21 years’ imprisonment or fines of up to $3,360.

Victoria’s state parliament passed similar laws on 10 September, also scrapping the previous religious confession exemption, with the maximum penalty set at a three-year prison sentence.

Clergy will uphold the seal

Archbishop of Hobart Julian Porteous told media that while priests must comply with their legal obligations to report on matters of child sexual abuse in every other context, they would be unable to follow a law requiring them to break the seal of confession and that doing so would not help victims of abuse.

“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,” Archbishop Porteous said.

“This will deny priests the opportunity to encourage offenders to report themselves to police.”

Archbishop Porteous said the Catholic Church supports the role of police and the courts in bringing perpetrators of abuse to justice and said he thought the new laws seemed at odds with the Federal Government’s push to introduce a religious discrimination act.

In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews told media that the new law was intended to send a message to the highest levels of the Catholic Church.

“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,” the Premier said.

Melbourne Archbishop Peter A Comensoli said in August that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse taught the Church much about the need for ongoing supervision of those who work with children, regular review of relevant policies, transparency and accreditation for religious ministers, “none of which are addressed by removing the seal of confession”.

“While the Government has presented this issue as a choice between child protection and religious freedom, to any reasonable observer this is too simplistic, and worryingly deflects attention away from real action to ensure the care and safety of our children and vulnerable people,” he said.

Tasmanian Attorney-General Elise Archer told media the legislation there made it clear that all members of the community “must do everything in their power to protect children and prevent child abuse from occurring”.

“There is no excuse for failure to report the horrific abuse of children, least of all for institutions who have been named by the Royal Commission as failing to prevent child abuse in the past,” she said.

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