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Laws Against Secrecy of Confession in Australia

The correlation between Catholic Church ideology and legislation has been a cornerstone for a long time. Typically, the legislature does not interfere in matters of religion. However, instances of intervention in the legal protection of confessional secrecy are gaining momentum.

Laws and similar practices protecting confessional secrecy should either be repealed or have exceptions for child sexual abuse. This idea first emerged with Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Abuse in Australia.  

The basis for changing the legal approach to confessional secrecy is the conclusion that religions mask and thus protect perpetrators of child sexual abuse by hiding behind the seal of confession. Some survivors have said that their abuser confessed to other members of the religious organization they belonged to but that the person to whom the abuser confessed neglected to call the police. Abuse persisted as a result.

The Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Abuse formed the recommendations after a five-year study and analysis of the prevalence of institutional child abuse. Some states have already implemented the recommendations.

Secrecy of confession in Victoria

In 2012 priests and spiritual leaders were listed as mandatory reporters in Victoria. However, there was an exception: a priest was not required to report any abuse he became aware of during confession. After 2018, there is no such exception in the law. Victoria belongs to one of the first states to follow the recommendations of the Royal Commission, creating, however, a conflict with the church, which immediately stated its refusal to comply with the legislation.

However, failure to report known incidents of institutional child sexual abuse is punishable by imprisonment in Victoria.

Secrecy of confession in Tasmania

Also, in 2018, Tasmania passed a bill requiring priests to report any child abuse they became aware of during confession.

Priests, like nurses and teachers in Tasmania, are professionals who could get jailed under the mandatory reporting law if they fail to report a known case of child sexual abuse.

Preventing Institutional Child Sexual Abuse in South Australia

On October 1, 2018, South Australia was among the first states in Australia to follow the recommendations of the Royal Commission and not be afraid to confront the church. From then on, priests became legally obligated to report any information they received during the confessional about child sexual abuse.

If a priest violates the stipulated duty, he commits an offence. That is why he can be punished with a fine of A$10,000.

Thus South Australia repealed an earlier exception for priests. This exception consisted of not reporting institutional child sexual abuse or historical child sexual abuse of which they may have become aware during confession.

South Australia was the first state to pass such a controversial law for religion. It urged other states to do the same, motivated by the need for a unified approach to protecting children from sexual abuse.

Law against the secrecy of sacramental confession in the Australian Capital Territory

ACT was no exception. The state was also among the first to follow the recommendations of the Royal Commission and destroy the confessional secrecy exemption for priests in child sexual abuse. Thus, ACT allows severe penalties for priests who violate the law and fail to report a case of child sexual abuse of which he becomes aware as a result of confession.

What about the State of Queensland?

In September 2020, the state of Queensland passed a law that ordered the priests to break the seal of the confession. At the same time, the priest is required to report any case of child sexual abuse (institutional child sexual abuse and historical child sexual abuse, among others).

Failure to comply with the above obligation leads to a punishment of three years imprisonment.

Regardless of the views of the church and individual priests, the law was intended to provide better protection for children. In doing so, the legislator was guided by the fact that it is the moral obligation of all, without exception, to report child abuse. This rule should also apply to priests. 

Law against the secrecy of confession in Western Australia

On November 1, 2022, Western Australia enacted a law that, following the example of the rest of the states, required priests to report all known cases of child sexual abuse, including those made known to him as a result of the sacrament of penance. The law was passed in 2021 but only recently went into effect.

A priest who fails to report information disclosed during the Sacrament of Penance will be considered guilty. It will be an offence in this Australian state and is punishable by a maximum fine of A$6,000.

The State of Secrecy of Confession in Australia

The reasons for the widespread incidence of institutional child sexual abuse, especially in the Australian Catholic Church, are debatable. However, the need to punish the perpetrators and prevent the continuation of abuse is evident.

Church law establishes that a Catholic priest who violates the seal of confession is liable to ex-communication. Canon law states that the sacramental seal must be inviolable. The confessor is forbidden for any reason whatsoever to betray the penitent in words or in any other way.

While generally supporting the committee’s recommendations on child sexual abuse, the Catholic Church in Australia has opposed the need to legislate a priest’s obligation to break the seal of the confession if child sexual abuse is found to have occurred.

It leads to the church’s scandalous and controversial attitude toward the law’s requirements.

However, priests are no longer protected by the seal of the confession. It gives excellent new hope to survivors of institutional child sexual abuse and historical child sexual abuse for justice.

If you or someone you know would like to talk to one of our historical sexual abuse specialists, for free and in confidence, about your legal options, please feel free to either complete the form below with the best way and the best time to contact you, or you can call us on 02 9283 5599.

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