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Australian Report Into Child Sex Abuse Wants to Break Confessional Seal

Current laws in most Australian states uphold the confidentiality of the religious confession.
Image: Priest in Confession Booth with Cross
Priest in confession booth with cross in hand.BanksPhotos / Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

An Australian report into child sex abuse on Monday recommended new laws to compel clergy to report sex abuse allegations they hear in religious confession.

Current laws in most Australian states uphold the confidentiality of the religious confession.

A government-sanctioned inquiry into child sex abuse said it heard that some perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.

"Clergy should not be able to refuse to report because the information was received during confession," the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse said in a statement attached to the report on Monday.

"Persons in institutions should report if they know, suspect or should have suspected a child is being or has been sexually abused."

The Australian government did not immediately respond to the report.

The Royal Commission had previously heard that 7 percent of Catholic priests working in Australia between 1950 and 2010 were accused of child sex crimes and that close to 1,100 people filed child sexual assault claims against the Anglican Church over a 35-year period.

A royal commission is Australia's most powerful kind of government-appointed inquiry and can compel witnesses to give evidence and recommend prosecutions, but it does not make laws.

"Priests are able to say that they didn't have to divulge anything in confessional because of this privilege — this would change that," barrister Miiko Kumar, a legal academic at the University of Sydney, said of the commission's recommendation.

"It would make it absolutely clear that this should be an offence and a priest can't claim the privilege."

A similar rule, overriding the confessional privilege in Church law that prevents clerics from sharing information, was introduced in Ireland in 2012.

A spokeswoman for Australia's Catholic Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Michael Quinlan, a legal expert at Catholic University Notre Dame in Sydney, previously told the inquiry that confession is a sacrament "at the heart of the Catholic religious faith" and to change its legal status would undermine religious freedoms.