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Updated: Catholic Church in Australia says it won’t lift the seal of confession despite Royal Commission recommendation

Latest update: 4pm
Australia’s Catholic Church has accepted “98 per cent” of recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse but cannot accept a recommendation that the seal of confession be broken to report abuse suspicions.

In a report detailing its response to the Royal Commission’s recommendations, the church said it did not accept a recommendation that religious ministers not be exempted from mandatory reporting with regard to information disclosed in confession.

Cathedral of St Stephen Brisbane

Catholic Cathedral of St Stephen in Brisbane, seat of Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. PICTURE: Kgbo (licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0)

“The one recommendation we cannot accept is Recommendation 7.4, which refers to the seal of the Sacrament of Penance,” the report said. “This is because it is contrary to our faith and inimical to religious liberty. We are committed to the safeguarding of children and vulnerable people while maintaining the seal. We do not see safeguarding and the seal as mutually exclusive.”

The report says children would be “less rather than more safe” if the mandatory reporting of confessions were required with perpetrators or victims less likely to raise the issue in confession if the “sacramental seal” were undermined.

Speaking to media on Friday, Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane and president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said Australian priests and lay faithful were “deeply committed to both child safety and the seal of confession, which we hold to be inviolable”.

“This isn’t because we regard ourselves as being above the law or because we don’t think the safety of children isn’t supremely important – we do. But we don’t accept that safeguarding and the seal are mutually exclusive…”

He said were trust in the inviolability in the seal undermined, “any chance a victim would mention this in confession to a priest would also be seriously diminished, any chance a priest-confessor might have to impress upon a victim the need to inform responsible adults outside confession and find a way to safety would also be lost”. 

Coleridge said proposed legislation abolishing the seal of the confessional “is based on a lack of understanding of what actually happens in confession” and is “ill-conceived and impracticable”.

Addressing the issue of mandatory celibacy, the church said in its response to the Royal Commission that it was consulting with Holy See following a recommendation it request the Vatican consider introducing voluntary celibacy.

Coleridge said in his comments on Friday that the Royal Commission made no finding of a casual connection between mandatory celibacy and child sexual abuse but added that it may be an “aggravating factor particularly when accompanied by a totally inadequate formation for celibate living in a society such as ours where it’s profoundly counter-cultural”.

He said that while there is “dark side” to celibacy, “the question of celibate living, mandatory or not, in the end for us becomes not so much abolishing celibacy with its ancient roots, but in fact addressing in real and effective ways the question of formation for celibate living.”

Earlier, Sr Monica Cavanagh, president of Catholic Religious Australia, said the Royal Commission saw that the “societal epidemic of child sexual abuse and institutional failures to respond to these abhorrent crimes were laid bare before our nation”.

“The Catholic Church’s shameful history and the crimes of hundreds of priests, brothers, sisters and lay people were exposed as were the cover-ups, the obstinate behaviour, the stone-walling and the attempts to avoid responsibility and justice.”

Cavanagh said the church was “profoundly sorry” to the survivors of child sexual abuse, their families and supporters.

“We as a church have said sorry before and we will continue to say that we are sorry but we know that sorrow and contrition are not enough. Visible actions are now required.”

Describing the Royal Commission as an “important and necessary” period for the Australian community, Cavanagh expressed gratitude to the survivors “whose courage has meant that society broadly and the Catholic Church specifically are now safer places for the most vulnerable”.

Cavanagh said the church’s response to the recommendations was not about “mere compliance” but about ensuring that the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults was “integral to everything we do in the church, every activity, every ministry”.

Cavanagh said the church has already begun to make changes including in the screening and training of those to be priests or religious sisters and brothers.

In comments following those of Kavanagh, Coleridge said “far, far too many priests, brothers, sisters and lay people in Australia” had failed in their duty to “protect and honour the dignity of all, including, and especially, the most vulnerable – our children and our young people”.

“Many bishops failed to listen, failed to believe, and failed to act. Those failures then allowed some abusers to abuse again and again, with tragic and sometimes fatal consequences. So, with one voice, the bishops and leaders of religious orders here this morning make the pledge: Never again.

“There will be no cover-up. There will be no transferring of people accused of abuse. There will be no placing the reputation of the church above the safety of children. We will respond swiftly to accusations against church personnel. We will improve our governance structures. We will be more transparent and we will listen.” 

Coleridge said the church would now work to rebuild trust.

“We know that only actions, not words, will rebuild trust.”



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