Forcing Priests to Break the Seal of Confession

Recently there has been media attention around new legislation that will force priests to break the seal of confession in circumstances where sexual abuse has been revealed. Priests who refuse to report sexual abuse revealed during confession could be punished with jail time. Some prominent Catholic figures have pushed back saying they will not honour such a law. So you might be thinking, can they do this?

The New Law

The Victorian Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 was introduced to Parliament on 14 August 2019 and follows recommendations by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (see recommendations 7.4 of the Royal Commission’s final report) to mandate reporting of abuse disclosed in confession. Other Australian States have already passed similar laws.

Under current laws, priests and people in religious ministry are exempt from mandatory reporting laws.

Under this legislation, priests who fail to report abuse revealed in confession could be sentenced to jail terms of up to three years. The changes and associated obligations will apply to religious and spiritual leaders of all denominations and religions.

Mandatory Reporting

Under current laws, teachers, school principals, police officers, doctors, nurses, school counsellors, childcare and youth justice workers have all been required to report actual or suspected child abuse. Failure to do so is a criminal offence.

Priests and spiritual leaders in religious ministries are now also mandatory reporters in Victoria, even when abuse is disclosed to them during confession.

The new law will also expand mandatory reporting to include registered psychologists, school counsellors and professionals in the youth justice, early childhood and out of home care sectors (as suggested in recommendation 7.3 of the Royal Commission’s final report).

“The sacramental seal is indispensable and no human power has, nor may it claim, jurisdiction over it”
Pope Francis

The Law v Canon Law 

As you are no doubt aware, breaking the seal of confession is forbidden under canon law and has its own consequences and punishment such as excommunication. Despite the conflicting obligations under canon law, the Pope’s objection, and an alleged secret directive to bishops from the Pope, the new law is binding. No one is above the law.

 “If people break the law they would be prosecuted”
Child Protection Minister Luke Donnellan

Is breaking the seal of confession an attack on religious freedom?

An argument that has been put forward is that to force priests to break the seal is an attack on religious freedom. This argument has been shot down by Attorney General Jill Hennessy who has stated “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.”

How can Brennan Law Partners assist?
The intention of this legislative change is to protect our young people. As such it is a time to reflect on your policies and procedures for mitigating risk of abuse and managing reporting channels. Always ensure that you are complying with the reportable conduct scheme (for a refresher click here), and check that your policies are procedures are up to date. Be particularly mindful of allowing volunteers into your school and keeping track of Working with Children’s Checks. If you haven’t reviewed your policies in some time, or have a question about something at your school, we encourage you to talk to us.
This is meant as a guide only and should not be taken as legal advice.

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