Australia abuse inquiry: Catholic Church rejects call to overhaul confession

Image caption,
Messages from survivors were published by the inquiry last year

The Catholic Church in Australia has formally rejected a landmark inquiry's recommendation that priests should be forced to report sexual abuse disclosed during confession.

The five-year inquiry found tens of thousands of children had suffered abuse in Australian institutions. The Catholic Church had the most cases.

On Friday, Church leaders accepted most of the inquiry's recommendations.

But their stance on confession may set up future conflict with governments.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said breaking the seal of confession was "contrary to our faith and inimical to religious liberty".

"We are committed to the safeguarding of children and vulnerable people while maintaining the seal," it said in a statement.

The Church leaders said they would, however, explore other proposals - including asking the Vatican to relax rules on celibacy.

What did the inquiry find?

The royal commission inquiry, which concluded in December, heard more than 8,000 testimonies about abuse in churches, schools and sports clubs.

Its final report made more than 400 recommendations across government and other institutional sectors.

The government called the abuse a "national tragedy", began a compensation scheme for survivors, and said it would give a national apology on 22 October.

Religious ministers and schoolteachers were found to be the most common perpetrators. The inquiry heard they included 7% of Australia's Catholic priests between 1950 and 2010.

The commissioners recommended that Catholic clerics should face criminal charges if they failed to report sexual abuse disclosed to them during confession.

It also said the Catholic Church should consider making celibacy voluntary for priests because while it was "not a direct cause of child sexual abuse", it had "contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse, especially when combined with other risk factors".

What has the Church said?

The Catholic Church had already opted in to the compensation scheme, which will give survivors payments of up to A$150,000 (£85,000; $110,000) each.

However, Church leaders have consistently ruled out making changes to confession.

Media caption,
Abuse survivor Andrew Collins recounts his story

Additionally, they asserted that new rules would make perpetrators or victims less likely to disclose abuse during confession.

But they vowed to end the cover-up of abuse - echoing recent statements by the Pope - and committed to several actions, including:

  • Asking the Holy See to consider altering canon law to describe sexual abuse as "crimes" rather than "moral failings"
  • Making a similar request about introducing voluntary celibacy
  • Greater accountability in ensuring that past mistakes were not repeated

Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge said there was a "dark side" to mandatory celibacy, but conceded that the Holy See was unlikely to act quickly, if at all, in making significant changes.

Could priests be prosecuted?

The state of South Australia has already unveiled new laws - to take effect in October - that will legally compel clergy to report abuse.

However, Church leaders have vowed not to adhere to it. State officials say this may lead to prosecutions, resulting in fines of up to A$10,000 (£5,570; $7,250).

In June, Victoria's attorney-general, Martin Pakula, said other states were working "to develop a nationally consistent approach on this important issue".