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The bill, introduced in Victoria on Wednesday would make religious ministers mandatory reporters of abuse suspicions alongside police, teachers, medical practitioners and early childhood workers. Melbourne’s Catholic archbishop insists three years jail is preferable to breaking the seal of confession and reporting child sexual abuse to authorities.
“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,” the attorney general, Jill Hennessy, told reporters. “Ultimately this is about making sure that we start to right the wrongs of systemic abuse.”
The Catholic Church last year formally rejected the notion that clergy should be legally forced to report abuse revealed during confessions.
As ABC News reports, Archbishop Comensoli said he would encourage someone who admitted to abuse to tell police, and tell him again outside the confessional where he could then report it without breaking the seal of confession. But if the person confessing refused to do that, he said he would not break the Catholic tradition: "Personally, I'll keep the seal," he said.
Archbishop Comensoli also said most confessions were made anonymously and admissions of abuse were "deeply rare." He said the "vastly more important" recommendations from the royal commission such as accreditation, supervision and ongoing training were not talked about.
Current Victorian laws obligate teachers, police, medical practitioners, nurses, school counsellors, early childhood workers and youth justice workers to tell authorities if they develop a reasonable belief in the course of their work that a child has been abused. The amendments introduced today would add religious leaders to the list, ensuring disclosures of abuse during religious confession are not exempt and must be reported to police.
Victoria’s Liberal-National party leader Michael O’Brien on Tuesday said he wanted to see the details of the bill. “I’d like to think that in Victoria in 2019, we can make sure we can protect kids and we should also be able to respect freedom of religion. Let’s see if the government has got that balance right,” he said.
Father Dillion, who has been an outspoken advocate for victims of church abuse, suggested the laws were an opportunity to revisit the canon surrounding the confessional seal.
"I think there's a certain amount of burying the head in the sand in terms of the way in which the church has got to react to this," he told ABC Radio Melbourne. He didn’t say whether he himself would report abuse if it was confessed to him: “I would have to follow my conscience at the time to do what I believe was the right thing to do."