The City of Melbourne council will seek advice on whether it can put pressure on Catholic churches to comply with state laws requiring them to break the seal of confession in cases relating to child sexual abuse.
The private motion put up by Councillor Nicolas Gilley was passed on 15 October by a vote of 5-3.
An original version of the motion referenced Archbishop Peter A Comensoli’s public statements in defence of the seal of confession and sought a public declaration by the city’s Catholic churches, which would include St Patrick’s Cathedral, that they would comply with mandatory reporting laws, forcing priests to reveal any disclosures of abuse made through the sacrament of confession.
Cr Gilley had broached the idea of putting up “great big signs” in front of churches advising there was a risk to children in such institutions.
Councillor Beverley Pinder who opposed the motion told the meeting that while it was a “slight improvement” on the original she believed it still took “the council into territory in which it has no role or authority”.
“I do believe, obviously, all we can do to protect our children, keep them safe and look after their welfare is paramount and goes without saying, but I don’t believe that targeting places of worship is a constructive way to do it,” Cr Pinder said.
“The focus should really be on places where children participate as opposed to places of worship.
“Unfortunately we’re in a situation where places of worship and in particular the Catholic Church have been subject to attack and criticism based on media reports and not knowledge of the full facts.
“I strongly support the mandatory reporting laws, as does the Church….I’m concerned about this approach we’re taking today.”
Cr Gilley, a former Anglican priest and an abuse survivor, acknowledged the Catholic Church’s work in safeguarding and said his motion was not singling it out but that he became concerned after seeing reports that Archbishop Comensoli was unwilling to break the seal of confession in order to obey mandatory reporting laws.
“I don’t think we can put ourselves above the law because of our faith with respect to any issue in society,” he said.
Council CEO Justin Hanney advised the meeting that the council had no legislative or regulatory levers to deal with the issue under the Local Government Act, and that specific legal advice would need to be sought.
The motion calls on council management to confirm with the Child Safety Commission if the Archdiocese’s Safeguarding Children and Young People Framework provides adequate protection for children.
It then requests management to report back on what the council’s role could be in seeking confirmation from places of worship of their compliance with mandatory reporting laws and how to respond if there was any intention of non-compliance.