Melbourne archbishop says he'd rather go to jail than report child abuse heard in confession

Denis Hart says ‘communication with God is of a higher order’ after child sex abuse inquiry calls for failure to report to become a criminal offence

The archbishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, said he would risk going to jail rather than report allegations of child sexual abuse raised during confession, and that the sacredness of communication with God during confession should be above the law.

He was responding to a report from the child sex abuse royal commission calling for reforms that, if adopted by governments, would see failure to report child sex abuse in institutions become a criminal offence, extending to information given in religious confessions.

Speaking to ABC radio 774 in Melbourne, Hart said he stood by comments he made in 2011 that priests would rather be jailed than violate the sacramental seal.

“I believe [confession] is an absolute sacrosanct communication of a higher order that priests by nature respect,” Hart said on Tuesday morning.

“We are admitting a communication with God is of a higher order,” he said. “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.”

He said much of the abuse that occurred was historical and awareness of abuse was greater now, and he believed it was unlikely “anything would ever happen” today.

But if someone were to confess they had been sexually abused or they knew of someone who had been, Hart said it would be adequate to encourage them to tell someone else outside of confession. For example, he would encourage a child to tell a teacher, who are already mandated under law to report.

Confession, he added, was “perhaps the only opportunity where a person who has offended or a child who has been hurt can have the opportunity for broader advice,” he said.

Meanwhile, the attorney general, George Brandis, responded to the commission’s recommendations by saying there were “important issues of religious freedom” to consider.

Speaking to ABC’s Radio National program on Tuesday morning, Brandis said he was yet to read the recommendations from the child sex abuse royal commission’s report, released on Monday, due to “other ambient political events of the day”, presumably questions around the deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s citizenship.

But he said: “The law does and always has protected certain categories of intimate professional relationships.”

In its report the commission said it understood the significance of religious confession, “in particular, the inviolability of the confessional seal to people of some faiths, particularly the Catholic faith”.

“However, we heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in religious confession, by both victims and perpetrators. We are 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,” the report said.

“We heard evidence that perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.”

Father Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and professor of law at the Australian Catholic University, joined Hart in saying he would not adhere to any legislative changes.

“And if there is a law that says that I have to disclose it, then yes, I will conscientiously refuse to comply with the law,’’ Brennan told the Australian.

‘‘All I can say is that in 32 years no one has ever come near me and confessed anything like that. And instituting such a law, I say, simply reduces rather than increases the prospect that anyone ever will come and confess that to me.’’

The CEO of the Australian Catholic Church’s Truth Justice and Healing Council, Francis Sullivan, who has previously expressed frustration at the church’s lack of action in addressing child sexual abuse, said the seal of confession was one of the universal laws of the church.

He said should Australia change the law, priests would be expected to obey the law, like everybody else, or suffer the consequences.

“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,” he said.

Brisbane’s Catholic archbishop, Mark Coleridge, said the relationship between priest and penitent in the sacrament of penance is unlike any other relationship, because the penitent speaks not to the priest but to God, with the priest only a mediator.

“That needs to be kept in mind when making legal decisions about the seal of the confessional,” he told his diocesan newspaper the Catholic Leader.

“So too does the need to protect the young and vulnerable in every way possible.”


Melissa Davey and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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