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Updated: Clergy should have to report child sexual abuse, even if information comes from confessional, Australian Royal Commission recommends

Clergy should have to report child sexual abuse even if the crime comes to light during confession, Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has recommended.

The recommendation is one of 85 contained in the report, Criminal Justice, released on Monday.

Writing in the report, the commission said that while they understood the significance of religious confession and, in particular, the inviolability of the confessional seal to people of some faiths, particularly the Catholic faith, having heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in religious confession, by both victims and perpetrators, they were “satisfied that confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt”.

“We are satisfied that, where the elements of the reporting obligation are met, there should be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offence granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession,” they said in the report.

The commision added further than while it is “fundamentally important” that the right of a person to freely practise their religion in accordance with their beliefs is upheld, that right “is not absolute”.

“The right to practise one’s religious beliefs must accommodate civil society’s obligation to provide for the safety of all and, in particular, children’s safety from sexual abuse,” the report said.

Other recommendations in the report include the introduction of legal reforms so that sentences for child sexual abuse are set in accordance with standards at the time of sentencing rather than offending, the introduction of a “broad grooming offence” that captures any communication or conduct with a child with the intention of grooming the child to be involved in a sexual offence, and the creation of a criminal offence surrounding the failure of institutions to protect a child with an institution from a substantial risk of sexual abuse by an adult associated with the institution.

Philip Reed, CEO of the Royal Commission, said the criminal justice system in Australia is often seen as not being effective in responding to child sexual abuse cases and conviction rates are lower compared to other crimes.

“Child sexual abuse cases are often ‘word against word’ cases with no eyewitnesses or medical or scientific evidence. Complainants often take years or decades to disclose their abuse,” he said. “Although we have focused on child sexual abuse in institutions, these 85 recommendations are likely to improve responses to child sexual abuse in all contexts.”

In a statement issued on Monday, Francis Sullivan, CEO of the Catholic Church’s Truth, Justice and Healing Council, said that while the church has consistently argued the confessional should be exempt from reporting requirements, following the Royal Commission’s recommendation, it would now be up to parliaments to form a view.

“If ultimately there are new laws that oblige the disclosure of information heard in the confessional, priests, like everybody else, will be expected to obey the law or suffer the consequences,” he said. “If they do not this will be a personal, conscience decision, on the part of the priest that will have to be dealt with by the authorities in accordance with the new law as best they can.”

Mr Sullivan added that the concept of confession in the Catholic Church was “built on repentance, forgiveness and penance”.

“If a child sex-abuser is genuinely seeking forgiveness through the sacrament of confession they will need to be prepared to do what it takes to demonstrate their repentance,” he said. “Part of this forgiveness process, certainly in the case of a child sex-abuser, would normally require they turn themselves in to the police. In fact the priest can insist that this is done before dispensing absolution.” 



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