As a church law dating back to the 12th century was dismissed earlier this month, Anglican priests in Australia are now free to report serious crimes that are revealed to them during confessions. The Anglican General Synod agreed to do away with the rigid priest-penitent law after a number of child abuse cases surfaced during recent federal and state inquiries.
While groups fighting against child sexual abuse have welcomed the move, it does fall short of long-standing appeals for mandatory reporting under laws that doctors and teachers have to abide by. The decision to allow priests to break confessional confidentiality still needs to be approved individually by 23 dioceses of the church and there are high hopes for that, especially since the synod voted unanimously.
The Anglicans adopted the confidentiality law from the Catholic Church after separating from Rome during the reign of King Henry VIII. The laws of both institutions forbid priests from disclosing any information that they have gathered from individuals during a formal confession. However, while Anglicans have attempted to evolve with the times, especially in dealing with child abuse cases, the Catholic Church has shown no such gesture in this regard.
Only the federal government apart from Victoria, New South Wales and the Northern Territory offer priest-penitent confidentiality in evidence acts despite the provision applying only to ritual confessions and not offering full protection. In all other Australian states, priests are subject to common law that does not provide confessional privilege to them. Up until the synod vote, the Anglican Church treated confessions as inviolable, allowing priests to talk about them only with the consent of the penitent. However, the new law will allow Anglican priests to report serious crimes like child sexual abuse, amounting to prison sentences of five years or more.
“In some what you might call extreme circumstances, a priest may not be bound by the seal of the confessional… What this legislation is doing has made it absolutely clear that that's what the church expects and also permits, so clergy are not put in the position of feeling that they're breaking a sacred vow... It releases them from that so they can do with good conscience what I believe they know they should do,” said Adelaide Anglican Archbishop Jeffrey Driver.
The change points towards Anglicans finally addressing repeated appeals to end confessional secrecy and provide for mandatory reporting by priests who know of serious crimes. While responding to child sexual abuse cases that shocked Australians with graphic details of rape, beatings and torture, Julia Gillard, former Labor Prime Minister, referred to priests’ silence as a “sin of omission.”
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