News & Current Affairs

By Peter Woodhouse


Senior Catholics above the law? – stubborn refusal to report sexual abuse exemplifies a lot of what is wrong with the church.

Let’s face it.  The Catholic Church has a global P.R. problem, particularly in relation to child sexual abuse.  It seems that problem has just gotten significantly worse.

Melbourne’s most senior Catholic, Archbishop Peter Comensoli, is making international headlines after he suggested he would rather go to jail than break the seal of the confessional if one of his parishioners confessed child sexual abuse to him.

On Wednesday this week, the Victorian Government introduced new laws to parliament aimed at forcing religious leaders to report child physical and sexual abuse.  In the aftermath of the Royal Commission into institutional abuse, similar laws have been introduced into most other jurisdictions around Australia (or are on the cards) and the reforms put priests in the same category as school teachers, doctors and counsellors.  The failure to do so carries a maximum penalty of three years’ jail.

Whilst the wider Catholic Church supports mandatory reporting, Archbishop Comensoli told ABC radio that if a person confessed child sexual abuse to him, but otherwise refused to hand themselves in to authorities then he would not go to the police.  When asked if he’d be prepared to go to jail over it, he said: “I’ll say for myself, yes.”

But it’s not just for himself.  This position no doubt gives the green light to other Priests down the chain to respond in the same way; and presumably they will have the support of the Church behind them.

In defending his stance, the Archbishop said the discussions in the confessional should attract a similar level of protection to the privilege that exists between a lawyer and a client.

There are many problems with that argument.  Firstly, lawyers are permitted to disclose such matters under their professional rules in order to prevent serious harm to another person or the commission of a serious offence.

Secondly, it fails to appreciate why Catholics go to confession in the first place – absolution.  I don’t hold myself out to be a theologian or an expert on Catholic dogma – but most people understand that you go along to confession, confess your sins, say your 10 ‘Hale Marys’ and all is forgiven.

I have first-hand experience with this.  I acted for a person who admitted the sexual abuse of his own child to his parish priest and was given absolution.  He went on, over the next decade, to commit sexual offences against 3 other children, including another of his own.  What if that Priest had been compelled by law to report the abuse?  What if that Priest refused to absolve the man for his sins?

People are turning away from the Catholic Church in droves.  That is probably in part due to the increase in atheism, but this sort of rhetoric from senior figures in the Church also plays a role.  They are out of touch.  Whether or not there is mandatory reporting by the Priest hearing the confession, perhaps the Catholic Church should decree that no person confessing child sexual abuse will be absolved.