Catholics for Renewal


Editorial, September 2020

Royal Commission, Mandatory Reporting and Seal of Confession

Prior to the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, few Australian states and territories had laws mandating ministers of religion to report their knowledge or suspicion of criminal child sexual abuse.  None had laws extending the obligation to report where  the  knowledge or belief of abuse was gained in a religious confession.  However, based on the extensive evidence it heard over the 5 years of its inquiry the Royal Commission concluded that all Australian states and territories should have laws making ministers of religion mandatory reporters of child sexual abuse, even where that knowledge or belief of  abuse was gained in a religious confession.  

In its submission to the earlier Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into the Handling of Child Sexual Abuse by Religious and Other Organisations (2012-2013), Catholics for Renewal had urged the Victorian Parliament to introduce mandatory reporting of criminal child sexual abuse for ministers of religion.  It fully supported, therefore, the Royal Commission’s recommendations, and made this clear in its submission to the Plenary Council and in Getting Back on Mission: Reforming Our Church Together where it recommended

..that, as there is a critical need to ensure that child sexual abusers are not left unidentified and at large in the community, the Plenary Council should carefully examine the seal of  confession as it currently operates in the First Rite, with a view to: i) maintaining its essential purpose while conforming to civil laws requiring reporting knowledge of child sexual abusers at large obtained in a sacramental confession; and ii) mandating that absolution be deferred, conditional on the abuser penitent self-reporting the crime(s) committed to the civil authorities of the jurisdiction where the crime(s) was committed and providing proof of the self-reporting”. (Rec. 4.7, p.207)


More recently Catholics for Renewal made a submission to the WA Parliament  supporting the Children and Community Services Amendment Bill 2019 which proposes to introduce mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse for ministers of religion, including when the minister’s knowledge or basis of belief of child sexual abuse was gained in a religious confession.  Should this Bill be passed by the Parliament, WA will become the fifth jurisdiction, after Tasmania, Victoria, ACT and Queensland to have such legislation.

While Catholics for Renewal respects and values the seal of confession, it also believes that should a priest-confessor know or believe from information gained in a religious confession that a child is being sexually abused or at risk of being abused by a sexual predator at large in the community, the law throughout Australia should oblige the priest-confessor to report his knowledge or belief to the civil authorities, thus safeguarding the child.  Jesus denounced anyone who would harm a child: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt 18:6).  For Jesus, children are precious beyond compare: “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs” (Lk 18:16).

Catholics for Renewal is aware that there are strong alternative views on the present teaching of the Catholic Church on the seal, including the claim of the seal’s divine foundation. Exceptions to the seal have been approved by the Church in the past. But the most important challenge to the inviolability to the seal derives from the central and ever relevant question:  how can the obligation of the seal be reconciled with Jesus’ fundamental Law of Charity, which mandates that we should shield our neighbour against physical and spiritual injury to the best of our ability?

Catholics for Renewal believes that under Christ’s Law of Charity, the integrity and safety of the child must take precedence over the integrity of the seal.

Photo: Detail from stained glass window, St Aloysius Church, Great Neck New York, CNS, Gregory A Shemitz

Cartoon: Brazil