The Archbishop of Melbourne resigned over Australia’s mandatory sex abuse reporting law, saying he’d rather go to jail than break the seal of confession.
Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Archbishop Denis Hart and appointed Monsignor Peter Comensoli as his replacement Friday, according to The Associated Press. Hart resigned over a newly implemented law requiring church officials to report any admission of child sexual abuse even if given during confession, which Church law mandates is sacred and confidential. (RELATED: Australian Church Defies Confessional Reporting Law)
Hart, the head of Australia’s bishops conference, had long defended the sanctity of the rite of confession and what Catholics hold to be its inviolable, confidential nature.
“I believe [confession] is an absolute sacrosanct communication of a higher order that priests by nature respect,” Hart said in 2017, according to The Guardian. “We are admitting a communication with God is of a higher order. It is a sacred trust. It’s something those who are not Catholics find hard to understand but we believe it is most, most sacred and it’s very much part of us.”
Christopher Prowse, Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn, also spoke out in defense of the sanctity of confession and lambasted Australia’s new law as ineffective in the effort to protect children and as an affront to religious liberty.
“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,” Prowse wrote. “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.”
The acting archbishop of Adelaide, Greg O’Kelly, declared that the church would refuse to follow the law.
“Politicians can change the law, but we can’t change the nature of the confessional, which is a sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ,” O’Kelly said. “It doesn’t affect us. We have an understanding of the seal of confession that is in the area of the sacred.”
While Catholics and religious freedom advocates have decried the new law as ineffective and misguided, others have spoken out in favor of it in light of widely publicized sexual abuse scandals within the Australian Catholic church. (RELATED: Prosecutor Argues Most Senior Catholic Cleric Convicted In Sex Abuse Case Must Be Jailed To Send A Message)
Australian Cardinal George Pell currently faces charges of sexual abuse, though he denies committing any crimes. An Australian court also found Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson guilty of failing to report the sexual abuse of two altar boys at the hands of a pedophile priest. Wilson is the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted in connection with a case of sexual abuse. Wilson faces sentencing on July 3.
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