For Australia, Child Protection Outweighs Religious Freedom, Ambassador Says

By Elise Ann Allen
September 11, 2020

Australian Ambassador to the Holy See Chiara Porro presents her credentials to Pope Francis Aug. 27, 2020. (Credit: Courtesy of the Australian Embassy to the Holy See.)

ROME – Australia’s new ambassador to the Holy See has said that when it comes to nuanced issues such as religious freedom in the country’s fight for child protection, her government’s evaluation would be that if it’s necessary to choose between the two, safety comes first.

Chiara Porro, the newly minted Australian ambassador to the Holy See, told Crux in a sit-down interview that the question of the seal of confession is “a very difficult issue,” with several factors at play.

At 36, Porro, who is a mother of two, is currently the youngest ambassador to be accredited to the Holy See, and is the youngest in Australia’s own diplomatic corps.

“The sacrament of confession is an integral part of the Catholic Church, and there are reasons which the Holy See detailed in its response as to why the seal of confession exists as it does,” she said referring to the Vatican’s recent response to a series of recommendations from Australia’s Royal Commission into Institution Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

However, from the perspective of the federal government, “I think ultimately child protection is really the paramount concern.”

“When you consider issues of religious freedom, when that infringes on other freedoms, particularly on safety and security, and when it infringes on children’s rights, I think the balance tends towards the other rights, and that’s the way the government has gone on this,” she said, adding, “it’s important to put as many protections in place as we can and that’s what this legislation is about.”

Established in 2013, Australia’s royal commission in 2017 published its final report containing a total of 189 recommendations after hearing the testimony of some 8,000 victims of sexual abuse in religious institutions, 62 percent of which were cases in the Catholic Church.

One of their recommendations was that the Australian Bishops’ Conference consider voluntary celibacy for clergy, abolish the seal of confession in cases of abuse, and make absolution contingent on an abuser’s promise to confess to police.

In a series of “observations” to Australian bishops’ 2018 response to the commission’s recommendations, the Vatican reaffirmed the importance of maintaining the seal of confession, but told Church leaders in Australia that victims of sexual abuse should be encouraged to report abuse to the proper authorities.

Since the Vatican sent in its response to the confession issue, the Australian state of Queensland has passed new legislation requiring clergy to report known or suspected cases of abuse to police, even if that abuse is disclosed in confession, meaning that priests who choose not to break the seal of confession in these cases could face up to three years in jail.

In Porro’s interview with Crux, she spoke about the impact the Catholic Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals have had on her country, including the high-profile case of Cardinal George Pell, as well as her country’s relationship with China and possible implications of the Vatican’s agreement with China on the appointment of bishops.

She also spoke of her priorities in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis and highlighted several potential areas of collaboration between Australia and the Holy See, including climate change, child protection, the rights of indigenous communities, and sustainable development.

Please read below for excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Chiara Porro:

Crux: What are your goals as ambassador?

Porro: In terms of specific priorities and goals, I think there are three main ones. I’m quite focused on the fact that we’re the only Pacific embassy here, the only resident embassy from our region. I’m really keen to bring that Pacific flavor here as we do in other settings, like Geneva or New York. I think it’s important for a number of reasons. One, it really resonates with some of the Holy See’s and Pope Francis’s agendas, for example climate change is such a big issue in the Pacific. I’m hoping that’s going to be a real aspect of my work, and who knows, maybe having a Synod on the Pacific in a few years’ time would be a real goal or objective.

Secondly, I think using our experience of the Royal Commission and all the work that’s being done on child protection in Australia, including by the Catholic Church and their response to the Royal Commission, to work on this issue with the Holy See but also other partners around the world who are experiencing similar situations. It took several years and billions of dollars, it was very thorough, and it was not just targeted at the Catholic Church or even just religious bodies, but all institutions. I think that’s forgotten, and that’s potentially one of the downsides, is that it’s still portrayed as just a Catholic Church thing. So, trying to move forward on that agenda, ensuring that child protection remains a real priority in our work.

Another thing I’m giving a bit of thought to is we have our 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2023, so we’ve got a few years building up to that, reflecting back over this period. We’ve really only been resident here since 2008, but our relationship actually extends much further back, so thinking about how we can really celebrate and reflect back on that.

You got to Italy as the coronavirus was beginning to wind down here, but it’s a problem still for much of the world. Pope Francis right now is dedicating his weekly general audiences to a post-pandemic world. How much of your job, do you think, will be dominated by the coronavirus and its aftermath?

Australia is doing a lot in terms of that already, and I think there are lessons learned to share. Countries have been really focused on their domestic response, but with things like vaccines now, Australia has already provided quite a significant amount of money, 80 million, to COVAX, which is the global vaccine program to ensure access for all, and it’s a real priority for us. For sure, the coronavirus is going to continue to have a lens on everything that we do.

I think Pope Francis with his encyclical that’s going to come out, we’re essentially pursuing the same outcome, trying to create this international society where everyone is respected and equal, and trying to remove those nation-state barriers. We’re a small island, we’re very dependent on things like trade, so for us it’s very important that we have this global community which is exactly what Pope Francis is promoting.

I think there’s a real demand for spiritual guidance in this moment, people are feeling very lost, and I think there’s a real void to fill, which I think Pope Francis as a leader respected by many, even outside of the Catholic community, can contribute to that, including things like interreligious dialogue, bringing communities together. There is that appeal more broadly.

The Catholic Church has had its problems with young people, and Australia in particular has been hit hard by scandals with the clerical abuse crisis. Given the scandals that have come out, and with the case of Cardinal George Pell being so prominent, what would you say is the perception of the Catholic Church in public opinion right now in Australia?

It’s very negative, for sure. You look at the media reporting, and I’ve also had detailed conversations with the archbishops before I left, and it’s really difficult. I can empathize with the fact that the Royal Commission, even though it was about all institutions, including the Australian government, it was very much portrayed by the media as a Catholic Church issue, and I think that’s wrong. There is so much good work that the Catholic Church does in Australia and there’s a real need to find a way to get that message out.

Would your evaluation be, then, that the good the Catholic Church does outweighs the bad, but it’s just not as visible?

As Pope Francis has said, just one case of clerical abuse is enough, is a scandal and cannot be tolerated, so I don’t think you can weigh it up like that, but I definitely think there is a lot more to the Catholic Church than clerical abuse. [What] is not really acknowledged is the response of the Catholic Church to this, all the measures that have been put into place since the Royal Commission and even before that. There are a lot of steps taken, and unfortunately, I think it’s just going to take a bit of time.

Obviously the most prominent case in all this has been the case of Cardinal George Pell. How much do you think this case has led to the negative impression of the Catholic Church in Australia? What imprint has it left on society?

He was the most high-profile Catholic, cardinal, to be prosecuted and ultimately imprisoned for this, so I think that’s why the media coverage was so intense. I think the fact that he has now been acquitted is a matter for our courts, and that he was entitled to have his case seen through. I think now, we have to respect the decision of our legal system, which is very transparent, and accept the outcome. Of course, the emotions are very high on both sides, but ultimately now it’s a question of let’s move on. That was the ultimate decision of the courts, and we have to respect that decision on both sides.

In their final report in 2017, the Royal Commission made several recommendations. For the Catholic Church, they requested that mandatory priestly celibacy be abolished and that the seal of confession in abuses cases be removed, making absolution contingent on reporting the abuse to authorities. The Holy See has just responded saying they accept most of the commission’s recommendations, but not these. In a case like this, how do you understand the church/state dynamic, and where does religious freedom enter in, if at all?

It’s a really good question and a very difficult issue. I can see both sides here. The sacrament of confession is an integral part of the Catholic Church, and there are reasons which the Holy See detailed in its response as to why the seal of confession exists as it does. From an Australian government perspective and a state government perspective…I think ultimately child protection is really the paramount concern here for the Australian government. I think when you consider issues of religious freedom, when that infringes on other freedoms, particularly on safety and security, and when it infringes on children’s rights, I think the balance tends towards the other rights, and that’s the way the government has gone on this.

Do you think it could potentially create more problems since the Vatican has said no to this and that bishops and priests will likely refuse to comply?

Ultimately, they risk jail, but getting to that point, who knows. It was very reassuring to see the Vatican also in its response saying priests should, if they have these revelations during confession, should be encouraging the victim or the perpetrators to go to the authorities. In a murder case, how does it work when someone confesses to a murder, what does a priest do? It’s a similar case. It’s not an easy situation.

You mentioned that Australia is partners with both the United States and China. China has been criticized by many countries recently for their record on human rights, they’ve detained an Australian journalist as well, particularly with the new security law in Hong Kong and the treatment of its Uighur population. Does your government share these concerns over democracy and human rights in China?

Australia has been dealing with China and has a very enmeshed relationship with China, it’s our largest trading partner…so there are quite significant links that we have with China, but for years we have also pursued our human rights concerns.

Most recently, and especially this year since the coronavirus really kicked off, and with our calls for an independent investigation into the causes of the virus, our relationship has really hit a bit of a low. I’d say it’s probably the worst in the past 50 years. We’re really seeing a lot of pressure from China. They’ve put measures in place to stop some of our exports, they’ve said Australia is not a safe destination for students, etc.

Then with everything that’s going on in Hong Kong at the moment, Australia has really spoken out on China, we’ve cancelled our extradition treaty, we’ve created new visa categories for people from Hong Kong to come and live in Australia if they need to, and we’ve also upped our travel advice both for Hong Kong and back in July for China highlighting the risk of arbitrary detention on national security grounds. So, we haven’t shied away from calling them out. Despite our economic interests, we look to defend our sovereignty and values, even in our relationship with China.

The Holy See this month will likely renew their agreement with China on the appointment of bishops. The Vatican and the pope face mounting criticism for this and for their silence on human rights issues. Given Australia’s hard line on China right now, would the Holy See’s courtship of China and its silence on these issues ever be problematic for your government?

From Australia’s perspective each nation-state, including the Holy See, has its own right to manage its own relationship with China. As I said, we have our own very strong relationship with China. I think engagement is really key here. China has its own interests and reliance on others, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship for Australia and other countries. I think it’s quite interesting with the Holy See, because I think China has met its match, because the Holy See is one of very few nation-states which has a leader for life, so it can play this longer game…So there’s less chance of a coup here than there is somewhere else.

From a hardline secular perspective, does it really matter what the Vatican does with China?

I think so. The Holy See is the last bastion in Europe to recognize Taiwan, so I think that’s a very critical factor. We’ve seen this play out in the Pacific for the past five to ten years, and we have real concerns there because of these small island states who are quite easily persuaded…I think the fact that [the Holy See] has held onto that relationship with Taiwan is interesting. I think if there was a switch there could be repercussions globally, in Latin America, South America.

It’s a global player, the Holy See, and going back to that unique relationship that they have, also because of their interests, most of China’s relationships with the rest of the world are primarily economic. This is a bit different. It is an interesting dynamic and a quite different one, so to see how that develops I think is of real interest.








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