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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?

PT2M1S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-29c64 620 349

MEMBERS of the clergy would face jail for failing to report knowledge of sexual abuse gained during confession, with pressure growing to lift the confidentiality laws that protect them.

Exemptions exist for members of the clergy, medical workers and social workers among a small number of professions in NSW if they conceal knowledge of a crime from authorities if it was gained in their professional duties.

Yesterday Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott added their voices to calls that Catholic priests not be exempt from having to report child abuse to police if they hear it in the confessional.

Tony Abbott

"Everybody has to obey the law, regardless of what job they are doing, regardless of what position they hold" ... Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares

MPs said the forthcoming royal commission on sexual abuse should recommend that state criminal codes be harmonised to mandate priests to go to the police in child sexual abuse matters.

Mr Abbott and his senior frontbencher Christopher Pyne, both Catholics, said yesterday priests should not be exempt from laws ensuring child abuse is reported.

''Everyone has to obey the law, regardless of what job they are doing, regardless of what position they hold,'' Mr Abbott said.

Clergy, medical workers and social workers can only be prosecuted for the offence of withholding information about child abuse with the consent of the attorney-general, a responsibility that has now been delegated to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Furore over child sex abuse in Ireland led to the introduction of legislation that requires priests to report abuse admitted in confession or face up to five years' jail.

In NSW, information gleaned in a confession may also be protected by the Evidence Act, which allows members of religious orders to apply to the court to refuse to divulge information made in confession, or the fact that a confession was made.

Certain professions that deal with children, such as teachers and nurses, are also subject to the state's mandatory reporting rules, which require them to report to community services any child they believe might be at risk of significant harm.

Failure to report children at risk is treated as professional misconduct, not a crime, and can result in disciplinary action from the person's employer.

Priests yesterday baulked at the idea of removing confessional confidentiality.

Father Ian McGinnity, former chairman of the National Council of Priests, said priests would be placed in a ‘‘terrible position’’ by such a change.

‘‘Where do you draw the line on that?’’ he said, raising the possibility of people admitting other crimes, such as murder or fraud.

‘‘That’s not to lessen the gravity of child abuse ... but it’s just there’s so many other areas of wrongdoing in the world,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a bit of a minefield.’’

He also questioned whether people would admit to child abuse during confession.

Father Frank Brennan, professor of law at the Australian Catholic University, has previously defended confessional confidentiality, while stating it was a ‘‘red herring’’ as admissions of paedophilia were unlikely.

‘‘Kids will be better protected in future if we put to one side the furphy about the seal of the confessional and address the real questions about uniform mandatory reporting and clear guidelines for reporting any suspected serious crime,’’ he wrote in the online magazine Eureka Street in July.

The Premier, Barry O’Farrell, who is at odds with Catholic tradition over the seal of the confession when it comes to child abuse, said yesterday he believed priests should have to report the matter no matter what the circumstance.

‘‘The law of the land, when it comes to mandatory reporting around issues to do with children, should apply to everyone equally,’’ he said. But  the view was his personal one and the government had no plans to change the law.

Mr O’Farrell was supported  by the  Police Minister, Mike Gallacher.

But the  Attorney-General Greg Smith, who is a  Catholic, did not back his colleagues’ view, declining to comment.

Mr O’Farrell said he was mindful in jurisdictions that had removed confessional privilege in certain circumstances, such as in Ireland, some members of the clergy simply flouted the law.

For help go to www.sexualassault.nsw.gov.au.

Clarification: The original version of this story has been clarified to show the Evidence Act does not allow automatic protection of information that priests receive in the confessional.