DAVID SHOEBRIDGE: Bishops’ fail means Parliaments need to act

STANDING FIRM: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge speaks to the media alongside Catholic Religious Australia president Sister Monica Cavanagh during a press conference on August 31.
STANDING FIRM: Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge speaks to the media alongside Catholic Religious Australia president Sister Monica Cavanagh during a press conference on August 31.

LONG-SUFFERING Catholics around the country want their church to take action, to show real leadership, and the bishops are betraying them time and again. Meanwhile the NSW Attorney General is so tied up in legal niceties that he’s stalling on making the necessary changes. 

Last week the Archbishop of Brisbane fronted the media to formally announce what many had long suspected, that the church would be refusing to lift the seal of the confessional to protect children from child sexual abuse. This article of canon law has once again been placed above both duty to the criminal law, and more importantly the duty to protect children. 

It is an indictment of the church hierarchy that in the face of incontrovertible evidence and the unambiguous guidance of the royal commission, they have again failed to take action. At the very same time, the Truth Justice and Healing Council – the body tasked with coordinating the Church’s response to the Royal Commission - released its final report, and clearly recommended removing the seal of the confessional. 

The Catholic church has rejected not just the recommendations from the royal commission, but also the advice of its own Truth Justice and Healing Council by refusing to agree to lift the veil of secrecy that prevents priests from telling police about child sexual abuse they hear in the confessional. 

In fact, the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Council recommends a thorough examination of Catholic teaching to work out how to balance its analysis of scripture while “complying with the civil responsibility to protect the welfare of children”. Far from being fixed, it is clear that there is a lively theological debate about the role of the seal of the confessional. The bishops are defending the indefensible when even inside the church there is an open question about whether the seal of the confessional can or should be used to prevent disclosure. 

The Council of Bishops are not just out of touch with the broader community, they have lost touch with many practicing Catholics around the country who are desperately looking for reform. It has taken enormous courage for the Truth Justice and Healing Council to recommend that mandatory reporting laws should extend to information about child sexual abuse disclosed in a religious confession. That’s the kind of courage the bishops are refusing to show.

With the church refusing to act, it is essential that all Australian governments immediately legislate to break the culture of secrecy in the church and once and for all put children before religion.

It has taken enormous courage for the Truth Justice and Healing Council to recommend that mandatory reporting laws should extend to information about child sexual abuse disclosed in a religious confession.

In budget estimates this week, I raised the matter directly with the NSW Attorney-General. I asked when NSW would follow other jurisdictions like South Australia and break the seal of the confessional around child sexual abuse. The Attorney-General attempted to defer the issue on the basis that a nationally uniform approach would be preferable, saying “the loose end that remains to be dealt with—namely, the question of religious confessions—is best dealt with in a uniform way, at a uniform national level, and that is what we are trying to do”. This is despite the fact that even the current "uniform” laws are only in place in six of nine jurisdictions in Australia. 

I pressed the Attorney-General to clarify what position NSW would take in a national meeting on the question of the confessional. Would NSW be saying that children’s interests should be put ahead of the church? He once again deferred to the need for uniformity. In my view, he hid behind it. 

Until governments intervene, priests in NSW will continue to hear confessions about past and ongoing child sexual abuse and keep it secret. More children will be abused. This is not academic. The royal commission detailed how one priest in Queensland confessed to child abuse more than 1000 times and nothing was done. He continued to abuse children and destroy young lives. This is indefensible.

We cannot let an institution that has so appallingly failed children to veto essential child safety reforms. The ball is now firmly in the court of the federal and all state and territory governments to legislate to break the secret seal and force all priests to report child abuse to police. Now is not the time to be cowed by religious conservatives in the Parliament. Now all parties need to come to the table and legislate in the interests of children. 

Any Parliament that refuses to legislate this fundamental and cornerstone reform will be harshly judged by both the community and posterity.

David Shoebridge is a Greens MP in the NSW Legislative Council