Melbourne’s most senior Catholic said he’d be prepared to go to prison to avoid providing authorities with information on paedophile priests.
Under new laws set by the Victorian government in Australia on Wednesday (August 14), priests and religious leaders have to report child sexual abuse allegations or suspicions discovered during confession, or they could face three years in prison.
But Melbourne Archbishop Peter Comensoli said he’d rather do the time than break the confessional seal.
Watch the clip from ABC News below:
In an interview with ABC Radio Melbourne, Archbishop Comensoli explained he would advise the person in confession to go to the police or a relevant authority, and would ask them to repeat what they said outside of confession so he could go to the police himself. Although, when asked what he’d do if they refused to do so, he said: ‘Personally, I’d keep the seal.’
When asked if he’d be prepared to go to prison for not complying with the law, Archbishop Comensoli said: ‘I’ll say for myself, yes.’
Archbishop Comensoli added that confession ‘deserves confidentiality’ and the relationship should be similar to that of a journalist and a source – in accordance with the Editor’s Code of Practice, ‘journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information’. He said that the government shouldn’t infringe religious freedom in this regard.
As reported by the Mail Online, Archbishop Comensoli (tried to) explain in a statement:
For Catholics, confession is a religious encounter of a deeply personal nature. It deserves confidentiality.
Confession doesn’t place people above the law. Priests should be mandatory reporters, but in a similar way to protections to the lawyer/client relationship and protection for journalists’ sources.
Victorian police, nurses, school teachers, counsellors, and youth justice workers are all required to report suspicions of child abuse under Victorian law.
Western Australia and Tasmania have announced plans to put mandatory reporting laws in place, while South Australia and the Northern Territory already compel clergy to reveal abuse allegations.
Following the announcement of the new law, Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said that children’s safety comes before the sanctity of religious beliefs.
As reported by the Mail Online, Hennessy said:
I don’t think in contemporary and mainstream times, knowing what we know now, that we can do anything other than say the rights of children trump anyone’s religious views.
Ultimately, this is about making sure that we start to right the wrongs of systemic abuse. We promised to put the safety of children ahead of the secrecy of the confession and that’s exactly what we’re doing.
The reforms also allow survivors of institutional abuse to apply to the Supreme Court to overturn ‘unfair’ compensation settlements with the church.
Last year, when Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handed down its findings and recommended to lift the seal on confession, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia said it was contrary to their faith. ‘We are committed to the safeguarding of children and vulnerable people while maintaining the seal. We do not see the seal as mutually exclusive,’ they said, as reported by ABC News.
Stuart Allardyce, national manager of Stop It Now! Scotland, a child protection charity, told UNILAD:
Reporting child sexual abuse is a vital issue to get right – we need to make it as easy as possible for victims to report crimes so that they can get the support they need. It’s also critically important if we are to identify those who have abused and continue to present a risk to children. Authorities including religious organisations have a duty of care, which in the past they haven’t always fulfilled.
One of the most well-known cases was the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston scandal. In 2002, The Boston Globe published the results of an investigation revealing systemic child sex abuse in the church, and continuous cover-ups by Catholic authorities – the story was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 2015, Spotlight. In the years following, the number of abuse victims reached into the thousands all across the world, including Ireland, Canada and the UK.
As a society we also need to be better at what happens once someone comes forward with a report. Right now, too many people don’t feel able to speak out – around one in six children experience sexual abuse before the age of 16 and many will never tell anyone. Whether it’s at the time or years later, victims must be treated sensitively and know that they will be believed, and efforts made to bring justice and prevent further harm to them and other victims. How we do this is down to all of us.
The Catholic Church was contacted for comment.
Anyone concerned about child sexual abuse prevention issues can contact the confidential and anonymous Stop It Now! helpline on 0808 1000 900 or visit stopitnow.org.uk
If you’ve been affected by any of these issues, and want to speak to someone in confidence regarding the welfare of a child contact the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000. If you are a child seeking advice and support call Childline for free on 0800 1111.
After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.