Priests will risk jail time if they don’t report child abuse revealed to them during the sacrament of confession, under news laws being introduced in Victoria.
The bill, introduced into parliament on Wednesday, would make religious ministers mandatory reporters of abuse suspicions alongside police, teachers, medical practitioners and early childhood workers.
“I don’t think in contemporary and mainstream times, knowing what we know now, that we can do anything other than say the rights of children trump anyone’s religious views,” Attorney-General Jill Hennessy told reporters.
“Ultimately this is about making sure that we start to right the wrongs of systemic abuse.”
Under the laws, priests and spiritual leaders face up to three years’ jail if they don’t report child physical and sexual abuse allegations.
“I would expect anyone who is aware of a commission of a crime would have the wherewithal and the personal ethics to report that crime,” Ms Hennessy said.
The Andrews Labor government’s reforms would also allow survivors of institutional abuse to apply to the Supreme Court to overturn “unfair” compensation settlements previously signed with churches.
Chrissie Foster, who with her late husband fought for years for compensation for their two girls who were abused by a Catholic priest, says there is no excuse for priests who fail to report confessions of abuse.
“The Catholic priesthood tried to get away with a basement bargain deal with all of this. They should pay until they can’t stand up,” Ms Foster said.
But the Catholic Church has insisted priests would be obliged to defy the laws.
In the Catholic Church, the seal of confession is the absolute duty of priests not to disclose anything that they learn from penitents during the sacrament of penance (confession).
In a pastoral letter issued last year when the laws were flagged, Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli wrote he was “strongly committed to reporting to the appropriate authorities” but “I am also strongly committed to upholding the seal of confession”.
In the same bill, anyone denied a working with children check for serious crimes such as rape and murder would no longer be able to appeal that refusal.
Victoria’s Liberal-National opposition has previously indicated it would back a law mandating priests report child abuse allegations.
But party leader Michael O’Brien on Tuesday said he wanted to see the details of the bill.
“I’d like to think that in Victoria in 2019, we can make sure we can protect kids and we should also be able to respect freedom of religion. Let’s see if the government has got that balance right,” he said.
Crossbench MP Fiona Patten welcomed the government’s move, saying “I think that Jesus would mandatory report”.
Australian Associated Press