The Queensland parliament enacted the Child Sexual Offences Reform Bill this week, which compels clergy to break the seal of confession in cases of child sexual abuse.
The legislation enacted on 8 Sept 2020 means requires clergy to abide by current laws that mandate reporting of child sex crimes. A priest who hears a confession of a penitent now has an affirmative duty to report the contents of the confession if it touches upon child sex abuse, and may not decline to answer questions citing priest/penitent privilege.
The legislation enacts recommendations put forth last year by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual and received cross-party support in the state parliament.
In a formal submission to the parliamentary committee that drafted the bill the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Queensland, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said the church was “unequivocally committed to the protection of children.”
However, breaking the seal of confession would not achieve this end, he argued. It “would not make a difference to the safety of young people. The proposed legislation would make the priest at this vital point less a servant of God than an agent of the state.”
The seal of confession was a non-negotiable item for Catholic clergy, he said. “Clergy have died because they have refused to submit to the claims of the state and preferred to defend the rights of the penitent before God and the rights of God before the penitent.”
The January submission from the Catholic Church further stated: “It is claimed at times that the seal must be abolished in law because it is the linchpin of a culture of secrecy and cover-up. The Church rejects such a claim, insisting that the seal is the guarantee of a culture of true disclosure which is the opposite of cover-up.”
In its submission to Parliament, the Anglican Church said it had no objections to that portion of the bill, noting the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia has given permission to clergy to comply with mandatory reporting laws.
The Anglican Church Southern Queensland (ACSQ) General Manager Tim Reid, told Parliament: “There is no impediment in Anglican Church law in force in this diocese to any licensed member of the clergy in ACSQ being able to report information about a child sex offence gained during a confession.”
If convicted of violating the law, a priest could be sentenced to imprisonment for up to three years.