News & Current Affairs

By Elizabeth Beard

16.08.17

Should Confessions Remain Confidential in Cases of Child Abuse?

The question of whether priests should report crimes told during confessional has recently been considered in a comprehensive investigation by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This investigation culminated in a report released on Monday which details 85 proposed changes to the law.

One of the recommendations is for the creation of a new criminal offence where an individual fails to report a sexual abuse offence. As ABC News reports, this offence would arise where a person failed to protect a child from a substantial risk of sexual abuse. Thus, if a person fails to report to police in circumstances where they know, suspect, or should have suspected an adult was sexually abusing or had sexually abused a child, they can be charged.

The Commission was specifically concerned with issues of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The Royal Commission stated it heard evidence from many cases where abuse had been reported in confession by both victims and perpetrators. They considered confessional to be a place where many Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have revealed their abusive behaviour to help alleviate their guilt. The report concluded there should be ‘no excuse, protection nor privilege’ for priests who don’t alert police when information is received in confession.

The former NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, welcomed the proposed changes saying there is legal precedent to remove confidentiality rules. He commented confidentiality has already been removed from communications in many professions, including those of doctors, psychiatrists and, in some cases, lawyers.

The proposed changes have been met with strong resistance from the Catholic Church. The President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, argues protections for confession should be respected. He stated confession ‘is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognised in the law of Australia and many other countries.’

The Catholic Church’s Trust Justice and Healing Council made a submission to the commission stating that requiring clergy to disclose communications from confession interferes with an individual’s private communication with God. They stated the Catholic Church in Australia did not have the capacity to breach the ‘seal of confession.’

Some religious experts have questioned whether priests would report the offences or continue to abide by the confidential nature of confession. However, lawyer Vivian Waller believes the clergy can still be caught when a child discloses their abuse to another person and informs them they previously reported the abuse during confession.

The People with Disability Australia group have stressed the importance of victim consent in reporting crimes. The group was concerned if crimes were reported without consent this could discourage victims from talking about their abuse.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman has said his Government will consider these recommendations very carefully before implementing new laws.