Prime Minister Julia Gillard says using the seal of the Catholic confessional to cover up child abuse is a ‘‘sin of omission’’ because all adults have a duty of care towards children.
Ms Gillard says the terms of reference for the federal royal commission announced on Monday haven’t been set, and nor has the way evidence will be gathered and witnesses questioned.
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Should the confession box be 'inviolable'?
According to Cardinal George Pell of the Roman Catholic Church, confession should always be in confidence, but what if it relates to child abuse?
‘‘That is going to be a matter for the royal commissioners we appoint,’’ she told reporters in Brisbane on Wednesday.
She said all parties including institutions and victims would be consulted carefully on the terms of reference.
When asked if the commission should examine the Catholic Church’s seal of the confessional, the prime minister agreed that it wasn’t good enough that some adults had been ‘‘averting their eyes’’ from the problem of child abuse.
‘‘Adults have got a duty of care towards children,’’ Ms Gillard said.‘‘It’s not good enough for people to engage in sin of omission and not act when a child is at risk.’’
Senior federal Liberal frontbencher Christopher Pyne has declared that priests should report child sex abuse crimes revealed in the confessional to police.
On Wednesday, Mr Pyne - who is a practising Catholic - said that as a member of Parliament, it would be wrong of him to advise citizens not to report crimes, particularly something as serious as child abuse.
''If a priest, or anyone else, is aware of the sexual abuse of children that is going on, I think there is an obligation on them to report it to the appropriate authorities,'' he told ABC Radio.
On Tuesday, in the wake of Prime Minister Julia Gillard's announcement of a royal commission on child abuse, Cardinal George Pell said that the seal of confession was ''inviolable''.
Cardinal Pell said that if a priest knew what would be confessed prior to the confession, then they should refuse to hear it.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said on Wednesday that it was important that she did not have a position on particular issues that were going before the commission.
"We really want the commissioners appointed to be able to explore every issue that they feel they need to," she told ABC TV.
But she also said that the commission needed to look at institutional barriers to reporting child sexual abuse, noting that it was a crime.
"I think the whole community finds that idea [that priests would not report abuse] really abhorrent and we've been through these debates for mandatory reporting for doctors, teachers, for others that [are] meant to be in close relationships and nevertheless have been required to make reports, so I think we really need to look carefully, there aren't a different set of rules that apply."
Ms Roxon added that it wasn't just priests who didn't report but other adults in other school or institutional communities. "A lot of people knew and somehow the system still failed those children," she said.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said that everyone has to obey the law when it comes to reporting child sex abuse, including priests.
"There are various requirements on people if they become aware of sexual offences against children," he told reporters in Brisbane on Wednesday.
"Those legal requirements must be adhered to."
In Australia, mandatory reporting requirements differ between states and territories. For example, in South Australia, the confessional is exempt from mandatory reporting. In the Northern Territory, "any person with reasonable grounds" must report.
Under the NSW Crimes Act, a person must disclose knowledge of a sexual assault or risk being charged with concealing a serious indictable offence, but priests are one of a small class of occupations that cannot be prosecuted unless the Attorney-General consents.
On ABC Radio, Ms Roxon cautioned that the royal commission would take "years, not weeks or months".
Ms Roxon said that when the terms of reference were set later this year, there should be "proper report-back", so the public could be updated along the way.
Cabinet Minister Bill Shorten has said the royal commission must address the controversial issue of whether priests should be legally compelled to report evidence of abuse they hear in the confessional.
Mr Shorten, who strongly urges a general system of mandatory reporting, said: ''What immunity can you claim when it comes to the safety and protection of little children?
''When it comes to the abuse of children, that privilege, if it ever had validity, is well and truly exhausted.''
New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell, a Catholic, has also questioned confessional privilege. He said he struggled to understand how, ''[If] a priest confesses to another priest that he has been involved in paedophile activities, that that information should not be brought to police.''
Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu supported mandatory reporting but said there had been ''a separate issue'' about the confessional. This would be looked at by the Victorian inquiry into abuse and he expected it would be raised through the commission.
Mr Shorten said Victoria police supported mandatory reporting and state law should be changed to bring it in. Police should not be obstructed by institutions failing to report matters, and it was important institutions understood that internal processes were no substitute for police investigation.
Mr Shorten said his own strong views had been influenced by the fact his family had for years attended the Sacred Heart parish in Oakleigh, served by notorious paedophile priest Kevin O'Donnell. He said thousands of Australians had been victims of sexual abuse, ''and too many haven't received a real apology, atonement or recompense''.
■The Prime Minister's Department said those wanting their details passed on to the commission's secretariat could phone 1800 099 340.
with Josephine Tovey, AAP