Priests could be ordered to report confessions of sex abuse to police
18th July 2012
Updated 18th July 2012
UPDATE: THE prospect of government forcing priests to report what was said in confession is the sign of a "police state mentality", says a priest and law professor.
Hundreds of years of Catholic tradition in the confessional could be overturned by Victoria's inquiry into child sex abuse.
Priests would be ordered to reveal crimes told to them in private confessions under one proposal before the inquiry.
But priests say they will resist being forced to reveal secrets of the confessional.
Priest and law professor Father Frank Brennan said the move would be a restriction on religious freedom.
“If a parliamentary inquiry were to recommend a law by parliament saying that priests were forced to disclose anything revealed to them in the sacrament of confession I think that would be a serious interference with the right of religious freedom,” Father Brennan said today.
“Indeed it would be a very sad day if we moved to a police state mentality, it’s almost of Russian dimensions to suggest Catholic priests would have to reveal to state authorities what went on under the seal of the confessional.
“I am one of the priests who, if such a law were enacted, would disobey it and if need be I would go to jail.”
Father Brennan said disclosures to priests in the confessional were different to those made to doctors or counsellors, or even when a priest was acting in a counsellor role.
“If it were in the sacred realm of the sacrament of confession which in Catholic theology is akin to the penitent being in conversation with God, where the priest is simply an agent, then definitely the state has no role of interference in that.”
Father Brennan said he expected police would have other more important leads when investigating crime than what was said in the confessional.
“They probably don’t have much of an idea about what people confess in confessions anyway, I think most of it, if not all of it would be of no interest to police.”
A parliamentary committee also will look at radical new laws that would see bishops face criminal charges for the misconduct of their priests.
Founder and coordinator of Melbourne Victims Collective, Helen Last, welcomed the proposal.
“I think it’s great, I think it’s very important,” Ms Last said today.
The Melbourne Collective works with survivors of clergy and/or religious abuse and Ms Last said she had recently spoken with a survivor of alleged abuse by a Catholic priest who had reported it in confessions over a 10-year period.
“She spoke to them, while the abuse was happening, in the confessional … many of the priests just told her to stay away from him, one priest fell asleep while she was telling him and others basically said ‘go away and change your behaviour’,” Ms Last said.
“Priests need to be mandated to report from within the confessional and without the confessional and they urgently need to be trained about appropriately referring victims.”
Submissions are being accepted for the inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious groups.
Ms Last said the collective was working with 100 people to help them complete submissions.
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The inquiry was set up by the Baillieu Government in April.
The inquiry is being conducted by State Parliament's Family and Community Development Committee, chaired by Liberal MP Georgie Crozier, with Labor MP Frank McGuire as deputy.
A guide released by the committee asks those making submissions to consider whether mandatory reporting rules should be imposed on the confessional.
"Should the sacrament of the Catholic confessional remain sacrosanct in these circumstances?" the paper says.
It also asks whether tough new laws should be imposed on the church hierarchy.
Editorial: Faith and law thrown into question
"Should officials in religious and other organisations be held criminally responsible for the actions of offenders of child abuse in their employ or for whom they have responsibility?"
The Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne declined to comment on the guide, saying it do not want to pre-empt the work of the inquiry.
"The Catholic Church will co-operate with the inquiry," archdiocese spokesman James O'Farrell said.
But the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, has previously said the confessional must remain sacrosanct.
In Ireland, where similar laws have been introduced, priests have vowed to defy the orders, which could see them jailed for up to 10 years.
The Reverend Father John Walshe, chairman of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, said the confessional was not a place of counselling.
"The universal response of priests to any attempt to demand they pass on information they have received in the confessional will be absolutely negative," said Fr Walshe, parish priest of St Patrick's, Mentone.
"Priests have in the past history of the church been martyred for refusing to break the seal of the confessional andI believe that priests today would continue to do the same."
A spokesman for the Baillieu Government said the committee had sought submissions on a wide range of issues.
The sex abuse inquiry is due to present its report to State Parliament by April.
Australia's cardinal George Pell has been approached for comment.