The Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher has supplied parish priests with some points to consider to help them defend the seal of confession as legislators around the country seek to strip the Church of its tradition of sacred trust.
South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory have already passed laws to extend mandatory reporting of child abuse to cover religious confessions.
It is the first time in Australia’s history that the state has attempted to encroach on one of the Church’s sacraments.
Priests of Sydney have already assured parishioners that they will maintain the seal, explaining why it is important to do so, and reasons why breaking the penitential seal will not make children safer from abusers.
Fr Michel Whelan SM, parish priest of St Patrick’s Church Hill, where priests hear confessions for 35 hours each week, said that he did not believe the Church is above the law but that Catholic priests will resist any encroachment into the confessional.
“I’m not willing to do that,” he told the ABC.
“When the state tries to intervene on our religious freedom, undermine the essence of what it means to be a Catholic, we will resist.”
Fr Matthew Solomon, administrator of All Hallows Five Dock, has provided his own explanatory document to parishioners so they can be “informed as best as possible so that you can be an apostle to those around you” and defend both child safety and the seal of confession.
Legislators made the changes in response to one of the 409 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Child Sexual Abuse.
The change in law will affect the faith practice of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, and some Anglicans, Lutherans and Methodists.
From October, SA will be the country’s first jurisdiction to require religious ministers to report information gained in confession, while the clause regarding confession in the ACT law comes into effect in March 2019.
The SA law passed last year removes the exemption from mandatory reporting laws for anything heard in religious confession relating to the harm to children, including physical, psychological and emotional harm and neglect.
Failure to comply will result in a maximum fine of $10,000.
The NSW Nationals Party voted last week to include in their policy support for passing a law in NSW which would require religious clergy to report knowledge of child abuse discovered in confession.
Former state education minister Adrian Piccoli, who introduced the motion at the party’s annual conference, said that he hoped the NSW would soon introduce legislation in line with South Australia and the ACT.
The NSW Greens are expected to attempt to pass an amendment in state parliament this week on the issue.
In his note to Sydney’s priests, Archbishop Fisher maintained that an order to break the seal of confession when child abuse is disclosed will result in children actually being less safe.
“We all agree that the safety of children and young people is of paramount importance,” he wrote.
By undermining trust in priest-penitent confidentiality, he explained, priests have less opportunity to impress on the rare child abuse penitent the seriousness of their actions and duty to self-report to authorities, and less opportunity to impress upon victims the need to inform responsible adults after their confession.
“Paradoxically then, while those seeking to remove confessional privilege hope thereby to make children safer, the net effect will be to make children less safe: by removing the seal, we lose the rare opportunity to point an offender or victim in the direction of the authorities and other assistance.”
Moreover, requiring priests to break the seal of confession would “be an overreach by the state into the domain of the sacred” and intrude upon human rights to freedom of conscience, religious belief and practice, he argued.
This month Catholic bishops in Canberra-Goulburn and South Australia expressed support for improved child protection measures by churches but dismay at the removal of the seal of confession as an exemption to reporting requirements.
Apostolic administrator of the Adelaide Archdiocese, Bishop Greg O’Kelly SJ, said that Catholic priests, Church employees and volunteers in his state have been “well aware” of their obligations to report child abuse and neglect under mandatory reporting laws and participated in regular and compulsory child protection training since 2007.
“The Church’s commitment in South Australia to child protection and child safe environments is unwavering,” he said in a statement last week.
“The legislative change extending mandatory reporting to the confessional has much wider implications for the Catholic Church and the practice of our faith.
“The implications are now being considered.”
He told ABC radio that he had been unaware of the law change until last week, and the Church would not change its understanding of confession as a sacred encounter between a Catholic seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ.
“That does not change by the law of politicians,” he said.
Federal Attorney General Christian Porter has expressed his support for extending reporting laws to include the confessional, and is committed to help the states and territories to coordinate their response to the recommendation before working on a national position.
Archbishop Fisher reminded priests that they are required “to resign themselves to punishment, even martyrdom, rather than break the seal of confession; the faithful likewise expect this of them”.