The Catholic Church should not stand in the way of this vital reform
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The Catholic Church should not stand in the way of this vital reform

It is hard to know where to begin with Archbishop Christopher Prowse’s plea on behalf of the Catholic Church for the ACT government to preserve the seal of religious confession, even in instances where a child is being sexually abused ("Reporting scheme shouldn’t ignore Catholic community’s wish to be part of the solution", The Canberra Times, June 7, 2018).

The Catholic archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn Christopher Prowse.

The Catholic archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn Christopher Prowse.Credit:Katherine Griffiths

Thankfully, the ACT Assembly wasn’t swayed as it voted last week to introduce Australia’s toughest new mandatory reporting laws, making it a leader in child safety. But there is no doubt the Catholic Church will never give up trying to stop the other states and territories from following the ACT’s lead and that is why the arguments of Archbishop Prowse, which seek to undermine the efficacy of these reforms, must be called out.

The Catholic Church has a shameful track record when it comes to acting on child sex abuse. Archbishop Prowse acknowledges that past and seeks to purport that the Church wants to be a part of the solution, but as an advocate for abuse survivors, all I see today is more of the same: a failure from the Church to act as the community expects in putting child safety first.

Once again, we are seeing the Catholic Church having to be dragged to the realisation that all children deserve to be protected from sexual abuse. The ACT reforms to ensure admissions of abuse made in the confessional are reported have not come out of thin air; they are the result of an extensive and carefully considered recommendation made by the Royal Commission.

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Yet Archbishop Prowse has seemingly dismissed this, arguing instead that Catholic priests should not be compelled to reveal details of what they hear in a confession because no abuser would confess to a priest if they thought they’d be reported and that it is the “common experience of pastors” that paedophiles don’t tell police or priests.

Respectfully, the question must be asked as to how Archbishop Prowse knows that this is the case or indeed will remain the case? Even if we are to accept the truth of his statement that priests don’t ever come across such admissions in the confessional, then surely that means that they have nothing to fear from the measures being proposed, because they won’t ever have cause to break the seal anyway?

It’s an admirable goal that Archbishop Prowse then says that in the rare instance that a priest should hear a confession of child sexual abuse, that they would counsel the perpetrator to go to the authorities. That’s as it should be, but I’d much prefer to see a legislated and formal process in place to make sure that does indeed occur – just in case.

The Archbishop also argues the new laws on mandatory reporting of child sex abuse would put the ACT out of step with other jurisdictions. Well, to be frank, my sincere hope is that it is only out of step for the smallest possible time because every other government in Australia would immediately also see the good sense to act on the Royal Commission recommendation to better protect children. Quite frankly, I don’t think it will take much time for the other states and territories to also come to their senses.

The overarching theme of Archbishop Prowse’s article is the claim that his organisation can’t be part of the solution if its religious freedom is not acknowledged. He says government and Church can both protect children and preserve the Catholic Church’s sacraments.

The facts are that the Catholic Church has an appalling history of abusing children and it continues to this day. It repeatedly re-traumatised survivors of abuse by how it dealt (or didn’t) with their claims for acknowledgement and compensation. It stalled on entering the national redress scheme. To pretend now that the Church can suddenly be trusted to be part of a solution flies in the face of this legacy.

Those who have forever been shattered by the Catholic Church’s lack of action deserve much better. And the Church, if it was genuine in its commitment to be a part of the solution, would not stand in the way of this vital reform in the ACT spreading far and wide across the country.

Michelle James is a Principal in Abuse Law at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers

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