Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli would choose jail over breaking confessional seal

ABC Radio Melbourne
August 13, 2019

Catholic priests who break the seal of confession face excommunication from the church.
Photo by Danielle Bonica

[with video]

The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne has said he would rather go to jail than report admissions of child sexual abuse made in the confessional.

A bill which would make it mandatory for priests to report suspected child abuse to authorities, including abuse revealed in the confessional, was introduced to Victoria's Parliament this morning.

The Catholic Church last year formally rejected the notion that clergy should be legally forced to report abuse revealed during confessions.

Interviewed on ABC Radio Melbourne this morning, Archbishop Peter Comensoli said he did not see the principles of mandatory reporting and the seal of confession as being "mutually exclusive".

Archbishop Comensoli said he would encourage someone who admitted to abuse to tell police, and tell him again outside the confessional where he could then report it without breaking the seal of confession.

But if the person confessing refused to do that, he said he would not break the Catholic tradition: "Personally, I'll keep the seal," he said.

Under current laws, Victorian teachers, police, medical practitioners, nurses, school counsellors, early childhood workers and youth justice workers must tell authorities if they develop a reasonable belief in the course of their work that a child has been abused.

The amendments introduced today would add religious leaders to the list, ensuring disclosures of abuse during religious confession are not exempt and must be reported to police.

It follows recommendations made by the child sex abuse royal commission and would include penalties of up to three years' jail for those who failed to report.

Child Protection Minister Luke Donnellan said the amendments would bring about "cultural change" to make future generations of Victorian children safer.

The Opposition said it needed to see the detail before committing to the changes, but the laws are expected to pass both houses.

'Children are sacrosanct'

Anti-abuse advocate Chrissie Foster called the legislation a breakthrough and said it was an "historic day".

Ms Foster, whose daughters Emma and Katie were raped by Melbourne priest Kevin O'Donnell while they were at primary school, said politicians who backed the changes should be congratulated.

She cited the case of Catholic priest Michael McArdle — who claimed in an affidavit to have confessed he was sexually abusing boys to up to 30 priests over a 25-year period — as an example of why the laws were needed.

"Instead of him offending for 25 years, now he'll be mandatory reported at the first confession, not allowed 1,500 other confessions after that," Ms Foster said.

"The Catholic priesthood says that the seal of confession is sacrosanct.

"Sacrosanct means something is too important or valuable to be interfered with. Well I say the bodies and lives of children are sacrosanct."

Archbishop Comensoli said most confessions were made anonymously and admissions of abuse were "deeply rare".

He said the "vastly more important" recommendations from the royal commission such as accreditation, supervision and ongoing training were not talked about.

He said the Archdiocese of Melbourne had "very extensive" policies around child protection and underwent ongoing training and audits.

"So all of those sorts of things, I think, are much more about the protection of children and are better at it on a practical level than this one particular thing. Yet this one particular thing has become nearly the all, and I think that's a shame."

'Practice can be altered': Parish priest

Father Kevin Dillon, of the St Simon the Apostle Parish in Rowville, said the church "needs to recognise the enormous damage that's been done" to abuse survivors.

Father Dillion, who has been an outspoken advocate for victims of church abuse, suggested the laws were an opportunity to revisit the canon surrounding the confessional seal.

"I think there's a certain amount of burying the head in the sand in terms of the way in which the church has got to react to this," he told ABC Radio Melbourne.

"I don't see the seal of the confessional as so much a teaching as a practice, and practice can be altered."

But he did not say whether he himself would report abuse if it was confessed to him, instead saying: "I would have to follow my conscience at the time to do what I believe was the right thing to do."

Catholic priests who break the seal of confession currently face excommunication from the church.

Additional amendments in the Children Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 include measures to keep Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal siblings in care together and boost the legal status of child immunisations.


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