The Barr government's plans to expand the Reportable Conduct Scheme to include religious organisations is to be commended but it should not ignore the concerns of the Catholic community.
The Catholic Church shares the government’s concern to protect the safety of children and wishes to be a part of the solution. The draft laws are a consequence of the profound failure of the leadership of the church and the duty of care we owe to children. It is a failure that will haunt the church for decades, and which has haunted
many survivors for even longer.
For these failures, the church is sorry. I am sorry.
At the same time, we are doing all that we can to make sure our schools and parishes are safe places and our protocols and procedures for responding immediately to such issues are in place. We have heard the Australian community, including the very concerned Catholic community, we have learned, and responded on a practical level. I am, committed to continuing this important work.
I support the government’s reportable conduct scheme. When the government scheme to report all child abuse allegations to the ACT Ombudsman did not include parishes and communities of faith, I called for that anomaly to be rectified and strengthened. But I cannot support the government’s plan to break the seal on religious confession.
First, what sexual abuser would confess to a priest if they thought they would be reported? It is the common experience of pastors that those who abuse children do not confess the crime - to police or to priests. If the seal is removed, the remote possibility that they would confess and so could be counselled to report is gone.
Second, the government has itself acknowledged that the church’s “Truth, Justice and Healing Council said that evidence put before the Royal Commission about abuse of the seal of confession was, at best, selective and patchy, and made it difficult to see systemic abuse of the seal of confession”. The government did not challenge that assessment. People who attend confession are sorry for their sins, indicate resolve not to sin again and seek God’s mercy. Paedophiles carry out evil and unspeakable criminal acts. They hide their crimes; they do not self-report.
Third, there is no guarantee any priest would know the identity of the penitent. If there is a screen in the confessional, the priest would not see the penitent. If the priest saw the penitent they may well not know them. There is no requirement for proof of identity to confess.
Fourth, priests are bound by a sacred vow to maintain the seal of the confession. Without that vow, who would be willing to unburden themselves of their sins, seek the wise counsel of a priest and receive the merciful forgiveness of God?
The government claimed it was interested in consultation on this crucial issue, inviting me to meet with the Attorney General to discuss the importance of both the protection of children and the seal of the confession. Yet, today, the government is debating legislation before that meeting has taken place. It is vital we get this right. The Catholic community wants us to fix this. I take very seriously our responsibility to be part of the solution, but we need to be a part of effective dialogue.
This legislation also threatens something else very important to Catholics and to other people who have a religious belief – our religious freedom. Religious freedom is the freedom to hold a belief and, secondly, the freedom to manifest belief in community and in public, privately and individually in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
The government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices and by attempting to change the sacrament of confession while delivering no improvement in the safety of children.
The proposed law would put the ACT out of step with other jurisdictions.
The reason these laws are likely to pass is not the protection of children, but the shocking history of abuse in the Catholic Church. Sadly, breaking the sacred seal of confession won’t prevent abuse and it won’t help our ongoing efforts to improve the safety of children in Catholic institutions. We urge the the chief minister to allow the
Catholic community into this conversation to ensure we are a part of the solution.
Together we can ensure the protection of children’s rights and uphold the integrity of our sacraments.
Christopher Prowse is the Catholic Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn