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New Queensland Law Reform Reaches into The Confessional

On 5 July 2021, amendments to the Criminal Code of Queensland (section 229BC) took effect, making it a crime for an adult who gains information that a child sexual offence has been committed by an adult to fail to report that to police.

Changes to the law specifically include information gained by a priest during confession.

In truth, such changes concerning the confessional are largely symbolic. However, given how widespread child sex abuse has been amongst religious orders and institutions, it is undoubtedly the case that the leadership of such religious institutions knew very well what was happening to children without needing to be told that during confession.

Nevertheless, symbols matter, particularly to many victims of abuse who wrongly learned from an early point in life that they are somehow partly at fault for the abuse perpetrated against them by adults. Moreover, letting religious leaders know that they hold no special authority over children who come within their influence is a marked change from the blind acceptance of those leaders’ supposed piety and authority in the past.

Proving it has learned little from the lid having been lifted off its history of endemic abuse of children, the Catholic Church made submissions against the removal of the seal of confession. Mark Coleridge made the extraordinary claim that to abolish the seal of confession in relation to child sex abuse “would make it certain that abusers would never speak of the abuse … and any hope there may have been that they might be led to see the truth of their crime, stop the abuse and report to civil authorities would be lost”.

It is hard to imagine a single instance in the past of a priest being told of child sex abuse during confession and then taking steps to make the abuser aware of the truth of their crime and report it to civil authorities.

Fortunately, the amendments passed parliament with bipartisan support. Queensland joins the ACT and South Australia in passing such laws. All states would be expected to follow eventually.

This is just one of many small victories for those brave victims who have felt able to stand up in the last few decades and bring about a culture of change to both support victims and prevent child abuse in future.

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