Royal Commission could recommend laws breaking secrecy vows on confession

Protection: Lawyer and former trainee priest Kieran Tapsell says stronger laws are needed to compel Catholic bishops to report all child sex allegations to authorities.
Protection: Lawyer and former trainee priest Kieran Tapsell says stronger laws are needed to compel Catholic bishops to report all child sex allegations to authorities.

THE child abuse royal commission would not be “beyond its remit” if it recommended obliging priests to break the vow of secrecy if a person confessed to sexually abusing a child, senior Australian Catholic priest Frank Brennan said in evidence on Thursday.

“I don’t think it would be beyond your remit, and if parliaments were minded to pass such a law,” Father Brennan said during the final Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing into the Catholic Church.    

Father Brennan warned commission chair Justice Peter McClellan that a recommendation instructing priests not to give absolution to a person confessing a child sex crime until it was reported to police could be “a fundamental interference with the usual separation of church and state”, but “these things can be done”.

Father Brennan warned that while the commission would have the authority to do it, such a recommendation “could become politically problematic”.

Justice McClellan replied: “We’ll have to gauge that.”

On the fourth day of evidence lawyers and church lawyers considered the extent to which church law had contributed to the global child sexual abuse crisis.

The hearing was told the commission is likely to recommend laws across Australia obliging Bishops to report all child sexual abuse allegations to authorities, including historic abuse allegations, after evidence a 1974 church decision known as the “pontifical secret” prevented Bishops from reporting historic abuse allegations across most of the country.

Lawyer and former trainee priest Kieran Tapsell said only NSW and Victoria had laws that overcame the “pontifical secret”, because they made it a crime not to report a serious historic child sexual abuse allegation to police.

Mr Tapsell argued the “pontifical secret” obliged bishops not to report child sex allegations to the police in states and territories other than NSW and Victoria. A 2010 Vatican decision, following public outcry about the child sex abuse scandal, allowed Bishops to report in those countries and states where they could be charged with an offence for not reporting.

Mr Tapsell told the commission the welfare of children required a recommendation for universal reporting obligations across Australia.

Commissioner Andrew Murray said the royal commission “will indeed make recommendations to the Commonwealth and the states of Australia to change laws, and we will be specific about that”, along with “principles to be adopted in law by institutions”.

Theologian Dr Joseph Grayland told the commission it was “in the process of changing the mindset of the Roman Catholic Church”.

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