THE Australian Catholic Church has rejected the advice of its own Truth Justice and Healing Council and refused to support lifting the veil of secrecy preventing priests from reporting child sex allegations heard in the confessional to police.
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge strongly defended the church’s rejection of a child abuse royal commission recommendation that the seal of the confessional be breached, during a media conference on Friday after releasing the church’s response to the royal commission.
Amending church law and requiring priests to report allegations heard during confession would “undermine religious freedom and that’s why we think it’s bad public policy”, Archbishop Coleridge said.
But in a separate report released on Friday the Truth Justice and Healing Council, which represented Australia’s bishops and 150 religious orders during the five years of the royal commission, said Australian mandatory reporting laws should not exempt priests from reporting child sex allegations disclosed during a religious confession.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert and NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said the church’s refusal to breach the seal of confessional meant it was “essential that all Australian governments immediately legislate to break the culture of secrecy in the church once and for all and put children before religion”.
“It is deeply disappointing to see the Australian Council of Bishops so firmly stuck in the past and refusing to accept that the culture of secrecy has failed the children in its care. We cannot let an institution that has so appallingly failed children veto essential child safety reforms,” Senator Siewert said.
Mr Shoebridge said the bishops were not just out of touch with the community but with many Catholics “desperately looking for reform”.
The Australian Catholic Church said it accepted, accepted in principle or supported 98 per cent of the royal commission’s 26 recommendations directly relating to the church.
But a number of recommendations, including amendments to canon laws dealing with secrecy or naming child sexual abuse as a crime rather than a sin or moral failing, were noted by the Australian church and reported to the Vatican which alone has the power to make the changes.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference noted a royal commission recommendation that celibacy for priests be made voluntary rather than mandatory and reported it to the Vatican, but Archbishop Coleridge said it was unlikely to be changed.
In its response to the royal commission the bishops said celibacy had been a “long established and positive practice of the church” and the commission had made no finding of a “causal connection” between celibacy and child sexual abuse.
This is despite the royal commission concluding that mandatory celibacy was “not a direct cause but a contributing factor” in the sexual abuse of children over decades and the secrecy about that abuse.
“Based on research we conclude that there is an elevated risk of child sexual abuse where compulsorily celibate male clergy or religious have privileged access to children,” the royal commission said.
The commission found celibacy was an “unattainable ideal” for many clergy that left them leading double lives and contributed to a “culture of secrecy and hypocrisy” within the church.
Archbishop Coleridge questioned whether there was research showing mandatory celibacy was a problem for many clergy, but said any move to make celibacy voluntary would have to come from the Vatican.
“It is not something that we the bishops of Australia can decide upon, it’s something that would have to be decided at a universal level," Archbishop Coleridge said.
“That is a possibility, I wouldn't doubt. But will it happen soon? I doubt it.”
Catholic Religious Australia president Sister Monica Cavanagh, representing 150 Australian religious orders, said the Catholic church “still had a way to go” in recognising “women and their potential to have a long-term effect on all the decisions that get made at church level”.
The royal commission found church institutions with women in decision-making positions had some of the the lowest rates of child sexual abuse while orders such as St John of God, with an almost exclusively male hierarchy, had allegations against 40 per cent of its members.
Reform group Concerned Catholics of Canberra Goulburn said the church’s response showed it appeared to have accepted the need for fundamental change “to an extent not previously expressed in Australia”.
“We welcome the church’s response as an encouraging, if belated move towards much-needed reforms to church governance, accountability and transparency,” Concerned Catholics chair Professor John Warhurst said.
“Acceptance of reforms such as the establishment of an implementation advisory group, independent of the bishops, to oversee the reforms are a refreshing development away from the clericalism that has pervaded church decision-making.”
Professor Warhurst said the church still needed to adequately address significant areas needing fundamental change including the role of women and the move to voluntary celibacy for priests.
A three-day conference in Melbourne this week of Australian Christian churches in response to the royal commission recommended a national day of remembrance on the anniversary of the release of the royal commission’s final report on 15 December, 2017.
The day would be an occasion where each church could report to the public on its progress implementing the royal commission recommendations, conference convenor and Franciscan priest Dr David Leary said.