The premier of the Australian state of New South Wales State has initiated a national discussion on the inviolability of the Catholic “seal of confession” following a Royal Commission recommendation that priests be required to divulge any sexual abuse of children heard in the confessional.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the matter of the seal of confession needed to be handled at the national level, asserting that it goes “beyond the boundaries of any one state.”
It is a complex issue, she said, that needs “to be balanced with what people believe to be religious freedoms.”
“There is nothing more important than for a government to protect children,” she said.
The government of New South Wales is implementing a series of new laws targeting child abuse in answer to the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse released last year.
The commission, which was set up in 2013, issued several recommendations concerning the Catholic Church last year, including obliging priests to report any sexual abuse of children that is confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The State Attorney General, Mark Speakman, said the law created new criminal offenses for those who fail to report abuse and protect vulnerable children.
“Our report laws will cover every adult, no matter what their occupation background. That includes priests,” Speakman said.
“However, there is a religious confession privilege in uniform legislation that applies to the majority of states and territories,” he continued.
The Catholic Church considers the “seal of confession” absolutely inviolable in all circumstances, and a priest who breaks the seal incurs automatic excommunication.
While the local Catholic Church offered no official response to the debate, Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher spoke about the importance of the seal of confession in his Easter Sunday homily, while noting that “powerful interests” seek to marginalize religious believers.
The seal of confession is “threatened today both by neglect and attack,” the archbishop said.
“But priests will, we know, suffer punishment, even martyrdom, rather than break the seal of Confession,” he said, while reminding the congregation that “no earthly authority may enter” the encounter between confessor and penitent.
Fisher said that religious liberty has to be defended anew by every generation, and never taken for granted.
“We cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia,” Fisher said.
“Powerful interests now seek to marginalise religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life. They would end funding to faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies, strip us of charitable status and protections, cast us as ‘Public Enemy No. 1,’” he said.
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