Sex abuse report released in Australia

The royal commission in Australia charged by the government with investigating how institutions (religious, federal and state governments) have responded to child sex abuse allegations has, after five years issued a 17-volume report containing 400 recommendations, of which 189 are new. Such commissions usually issue fairly mild recommendations but these were quite sweeping. Naturally, the report looked at the Catholic church, one of the worst perpetrators of child sexual abuse, and suggested two major changes: ending celibacy for priests and requiring priests to report to the authorities anyone who in confessions to priests said that they had abused children.

Here are the recommendations for religious institutions:

  • The ministry of churches (not just the Catholic Church) should not be exempt from reporting information discovered in religious confession.
  • Any religious organisation with a rite of religious confession should implement a policy that confession for children be conducted in an open space and in a clear line of sight of another adult.
  • The Australian Catholic Church should request permission from the Vatican to introduce voluntary celibacy for diocesan clergy.
  • Candidates for religious ministry should undergo external psychological testing, including psychosexual assessment, to determine their suitability to be in the ministry and to undertake work involving children.
  • Any person in religious ministry who is the subject of a complaint of child sexual abuse which is substantiated … or who is convicted of an offence relating to child sexual abuse, should be permanently removed from ministry.

Basically, the report says that churches and priests cannot be trusted to police itself when it comes to child sexual abuse. The practice of confessional silence is particularly pernicious because it gives the perpetrator the relief of having told someone and feeling that they have been cleared in the eyes of their god without any further action. Thus they are free to abuse again.

In the US (I don’t know in Australia), teachers are among those are designated as mandatory reporters in that if we are made aware of abuse, we are mandated to report it to the authorities and can be punished if we don’t. There is no reason why priests should not be under the same obligation.

Of course, the church refuses to consider these changes.

But the archbishop of the archdiocese of Melbourne, Denis Hart, responded by saying the seal of the confessional was “inviolable” and “can’t be broken”. He said if someone confessed to abusing children, he would encourage them to admit to their crimes outside the confessional so that it could be reported to police.

“I would feel terribly conflicted, and I would try even harder to get that person outside confessional, but I cannot break the seal,” he said. “The penalty for any priest breaking the seal is excommunication.”

Hart said the commission “hasn’t damaged the credibility of the church”.

In August, Hart upset many abuse survivors and advocates when he said he would risk going to jail rather than report allegations of child sexual abuse raised during confession. He was responding to a recommendation the commission published earlier this year that called for failure to report child sex abuse in institutions to be made a criminal offence.

Hart reiterated those views on Friday and said that he did not expect canon law to change. He said there was “real value” in celibacy, and did not want laws to be changed.

For the Catholic church, maintaining church traditions and upholding ancient doctrines, and even shielding abusers among its clergy and parishioners, is more important than preventing the sexual abuse of children.


  1. says

    Well, what would you do if you were god’s most specialest special people ever? Bow to a secular authority? Never! May our catholic universities favourite graduates who art in parliament protect us from such infamy.

  2. jrkrideau says

    Voluntary celibacy can be considered by the Catholic Church, Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart has acknowledged in the wake of the royal commission into child sexual abuse.

    But the Archbishop has ruled out any change to breaking the seal of confession to report allegations of abuse that may be revealed by a priest or a victim.

    Well, he’s shifted slightly

    A seventeen volume report is impressive. Just skimming the Executive summary is horrifying.

    We were told in private sessions about a wide range of institutions where children had been
    sexually abused. They included childcare services, schools (including religious schools), health
    and allied services, youth detention, historical residential care (including facilities operated by
    religious institutions), contemporary out-of-home care, religious institutions, family and youth
    support services, supported accommodation, sporting, recreational and other clubs, youth
    employment, and the armed forces (see Table 1).

    While the Catholic Church was by far the worst of the religious offenders, it looks like one would be hard-pressed to find any religion not included in the list.

    If I am reading Figure 2 correctly it looks like some of the victims were abused by more than one religious group! You get away from the mad monks to find you have been handed over to the Satanists or the Scientologists

    It also appears that just about no organization from religious groups to the local dance club had any decent procedures to deal with child sexual abuse.

  3. John Morales says

    The confessional thing is definitely out of the question.

    There is no reason why priests should not be under the same obligation.

    Arguably, if there were no expectation of confidentiality in religious confession, then those confessions would not be forthcoming. So that’s a damn good reason.

  4. Holms says

    The church cannot be forced to changed its stance on confessional secrecy, but the priests are still bound by law. There is no reason for the government to refrain from prosecuting a priest that failed to report such a confession.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 Holms

    But if the priest is bound by the seal of the confessional, about the only way the police or anyone else will know is the have the perpetrator confess to the police. Well, I suppose that the police count bug the place.

    I wonder what the clerical ethics are if once a priest hears the confession is he allowed to look for other evidence? Even passively?

    BTW, Wiki suggests that there a lot of religions with the ritual including Buddhists.

  6. Mano Singham says

    The way the mandatory reporting requirement works is that if it is later found that the reporter had been told of abuse and did not report it, then they can be punished. If the confessor and the confessee both keep it secret, then of course nothing will happen, but that is true for any mandatory reporter.

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