PM Tells Church to Put Child Safety First
By Megan Neil
Australian Associated Press
June 13, 2018
The Catholic Church maintains the seal of confession cannot be broken even to reveal child sexual abuse, despite Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declaring children's safety must take priority.
Mr Turnbull has promised the federal government will put child safety first as he prepares an October 22 national apology to child sexual abuse survivors for the "shocking" crimes committed against them.
The government will set up a national office of child safety as it adopts the bulk of the recommendations of the five-year child abuse royal commission.
While Canberra has not rejected any recommendations, the controversial issue of extending mandatory reporting laws to include people in religious ministry remains in the hands of the states and territories.
Mr Turnbull had a clear message for the Catholic Church when it came to the seal of the confession: "The safety of children should always be put first."
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Mark Coleridge said the church does not view the sacramental seal as incompatible with maintaining child safety and wants measures that will genuinely make environments safer for children.
"There has been no compelling evidence to suggest that legal abolition of the seal of confession will help in that regard," the Brisbane archbishop said.
"Protecting children and upholding the integrity of Catholic sacraments are not mutually exclusive and the church wants to continue to work with government to ensure both can be achieved and maintained."
Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said the states and territories have agreed to harmonise their mandatory reporting laws in relation to priests, effectively accepting the royal commission's recommendation, but the process will take some time.
He said once the states have reached a modified and uniform position on mandatory reporting, the federal government will likely need to modify a provision of the uniform evidence act applying to religious confessions.
NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the Council of Attorneys-General reached no agreement on the religious confession privilege under the uniform evidence law in force in multiple Australian jurisdictions.
"NSW remains of the view that the issue should be considered at a national level," he said.
NSW, the ACT and South Australia have mandatory reporting laws and new failure to report offences, with the ACT and SA laws covering confessions.
SA Attorney-General Vickie Chapman said the confessional would not be exempt from the reporting law coming into effect in October, which carries a maximum $10,000 fine.
NSW's failure to report offence will apply to clergy and ministers of religion, but the government says the confession issue comes under the uniform evidence act.
Mr Turnbull said Australia must commit to lasting reform to keep children safe and ensure the suffering inflicted on survivors who came forward to the royal commission can never happen again.
The government will conduct a nationwide study to determine where child sexual abuse is occurring and has given federal minister David Gillespie responsibility for children's policy issues.
Mr Turnbull also confirmed Western Australia will sign up to the national redress scheme for institutional child sexual abuse survivors, extending it across all states and territories.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten suggested former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard, who set up the royal commission, should be offered a role in the national apology for survivors.