Catholic leaders in Australia decried a new law that forces them to break the seal of confession when people confess to committing child abuse.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) passed the law on June 7 to include churches and church activities in an extension of a pre-existing mandatory reporting law for cases of child abuse, according to Lifesite News. Archbishop of Brisbane, Mark Coleridge, president of the Australian bishops’ conference, denounced the law as “premature and ill-judged,” arguing that it would ruin even the slightest chance of child abusers coming forward for priests to counsel them to turn themselves in, according to Catholic Herald.
Coleridge further alleged that the law was “seemingly driven by a desire to penalize the Catholic Church without properly considering the ramifications of the decision.”
Excommunication is the absolute penalty for any priest who violates the seal of confession, according to Catholic church law. Catholic priests in Canberra, however, which is within the ACT, are subject to criminal charges if they refuse to break the seal of confession in the case of child abusers. Catholic leaders now fear that other Australian states and territories will follow ACT’s move with similar laws in what they see as a trampling of religious freedom without consideration for the ultimate consequences. (RELATED: Bishop Of Tucson Calls For Canonical Penalties For Catholics Involved In Separating Families At Border)
“What sexual abuser would confess to a priest if they thought they would be reported? If the seal is removed, the remote possibility that they would confess and so could be counselled to report is gone,” Christopher Prowse, Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, wrote in an essay. “The Government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices and by attempting to change the sacrament of confession while delivering no improvement in the safety of children.”
Prowse also pointed out that the Australian government admitted that evidence of the abuse of the seal of confession “was, at best, selective and patchy, and made it difficult to see systemic abuse of the seal of confession.”
He also noted that, aside from the fact that priests are forbidden from violating the seal, priests do not necessarily know the identity of the person who confesses to them.
The ACT government initially invited Prowse to discuss child protection and the seal of confession with the Attorney General. The ACT legislature, however, began debating the bill before Prowse could meet with the AG to shed further light on the practice of and rules governing confession within the church.
Two ACT legislators, Andrew Wall and Vicki Dunne, also objected to the bill, saying that while some of the included protections for children were laudable, forcing Catholics to undermine the “sacred, sacramental and sacrosanct” rite would have negative consequences.
“The reason these laws are likely to pass is not the protection of children, but the shocking history of abuse in the Catholic Church. Sadly, breaking the sacred seal of confession won’t prevent abuse and it won’t help our ongoing efforts to improve the safety of children in Catholic institutions. We urge the chief minister to allow the Catholic community into this conversation to ensure we are a part of the solution,” Prowse added.
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