Australian law mandates reporting abuse admissions made in confessional

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Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, Australia, leaves the Newcastle Local Court May 22. Archbishop Wilson, who was convicted of covering up clergy sexual abuse, says he will consult his lawyer before he decides next steps. (Peter Lorimer/CNS, VIA EPA)

SYDNEY (CNS) — Laws requiring Catholic priests to break the seal of Confession in some cases passed the Australian Capital Territory’s Legislative Assembly in Canberra June 7.

The purpose of the Ombudsman Amendment Bill 2018 was to expand the Reportable Conduct Scheme governing allegations of child abuse and misconduct to include religious organizations.

The legislation passed without amendment. The Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn has nine months to negotiate with the government on how it will work before the start of reportable conduct requirements.

The law’s passage comes weeks after the May 22 conviction of Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, who faces a maximum penalty of two years in jail for failing to inform police about child sexual abuse allegations. The local court in Newcastle found that, in 1976, then-Fr. Wilson had been told by a 15-year-old boy that he had been indecently assaulted by a priest who later died in prison, but that Fr. Wilson, then a parochial vicar, chose not to go to the authorities despite believing the allegations were true.

Writing in The Canberra Times June 7, Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra and Goulburn said he supported the revised scheme, but would not support a requirement to break the seal of confession. He said such a requirement would neither help prevent abuse nor efforts to improve the safety of children in Catholic organizations.

Apart from the fact that child abusers do not confess their crimes to police or priests, such legislation would also threaten Catholics’ religious freedom, he 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,” he said.

In April, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian called for the seal of Confession to be addressed by the Council of Australian Governments rather than state governments in isolation.

Mexican Fr. Mateo Correa Magallanes and Bohemian Fr. John Nepomucene were both martyred for refusing government orders to break the seal of confession. They are now both saints. (Public Domain/WIKICOMMONS)

“Our response to that recommendation (of the Royal Commission) is to take it through the COAG process. We believe that is the best way to deal with it,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“They’re complex issues that need to be balanced with what people believe to be religious freedoms,” the premier said.

There is a long history of priests being martyred for refusing government orders to break the seal of confession. Bohemian Fr. John Nepomucene served as the confessor for the queen of Bavaria in the mid-1300s. When the king ordered the priest to reveal the sins of his wife, the priest refused, despite the king’s death threats. More recently, during the Cristero War in Mexico, Fr. Mateo Correa Magallanes refused to reveal what he’d heard in the sacrament from prisoners and was subsequently shot. Both priests are now saints.