By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
South Australian Catholic priests say they will defy a forthcoming state law which will require them to report information received during past or present confessions about child sex abuse.
The South Australian Catholic Church has made it clear its members will be directed not adhere to the laws because confessions are ‘sacred’.
Reporting will become mandatory
Under the new law, set to take effect in October this year, priests with information derived from confessions about child abuse will have a legal obligation to report the matter to police. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to $10,000.
The law forms part of South Australia’s response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.
The NSW government has refused to adopt the Royal Commission’s recommendation, meaning priests in our state – unlike medical professionals, teachers, counsellors and the like – are not required to report information about child sexual abuse.
Catholic Church defiant
The Acting Archbishop of Adelaide, Bishop Greg O’Kelly who temporarily replaces Archbishop Phillip Wilson who stood aside after being found guilty of concealing historical child sexual abuse last month, says that while politicians can change the law, the Church will not undermine the confessional which it considers a “sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ”.
The change in the law “doesn’t affect us,” Mr Kelly said defiantly. “We have an understanding of the seal of confession that is in the area of the sacred.”
The Church is adamant that its own traditions and beliefs about the confessional seal are more important than the law.
It has also warned that any priest who reports such matters to authorities will be subject to excommunication from the Church.
Widespread child sexual abuse
The Royal Commission reported that at least 4,444 children were the victims of sexual abuse while in the care of the Catholic Church in Australia between 1980 and 2015.
The SA law brings priests in line with many others in positions of authority, who are all expected to report child sexual abuse to police, and it is hoped that priests with information previously derived during confessionals will come forward and help bring perpetrators to justice.
A spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s Department said that authorities intend to prosecute Church ministers who fail to report abuse.
“Where there is clear evidence to indicate a minister of religion … has failed to abide by their mandatory reporting requirements, the matter would need to be investigated by authorities, with further action — including prosecution — taken as appropriate,” a statement read.
However, it may be difficult or even impossible for authorities to detect let alone prove breaches of the law.
History of cover-ups
The Catholic Church has a history of cover-ups and defiance in the face of the law.
It also has the resources to fight legal battles that it faces, including to pay for the silence of victims through out-of-court settlements containing non-disclosure agreements.
South Australia’s Archbishop Philip Wilson now faces up to two years in prison after being found guilty of covering up child sexual abuse within the church.
Mr Wilson had been vigorously defending the charges since they were laid in 2015. He made four unsuccessful attempts to have the proceedings thrown out our court, including one which cited that his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s would make it impossible for him to face a hearing. When hearing that applications, the court pointed out that it was curious Wilson was capable of retaining his high-ranking position of authority and responsibility with such an allegedly debilitating diagnosis.
It remains to be seen whether Catholic priests in South Australia will be lining up to report information they have about child sexual abuse once the new laws take effect.