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Priests in Tasmania could face 21 years in jail for refusing to break the seal of confession

Shutterstock/Marco Mega

Zelda Caldwell - published on 10/03/18 - updated on 10/03/18

Proposed legislation would require Catholic priests to report on suspected child abuse discussed in the confessional

Catholic priests in Tasmania may be subject to imprisonment if they fail to report suspected child sex abuse disclosed while hearing confessions, according to an ABC news (Australia) report.

Lawmakers in the Australian state of Tasmania have proposed legislation that would mandate that Catholic priests report to authorities any suspected child sexual abuse revealed during the sacrament of confession. The offense would carry a maximum penalty of 21 years in jail.

The new mandate would also apply to teachers, nurses, police and childcare workers to report any suspected child sex abuse.

The draft legislation comes in response to a December 2017 report from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse that recommended that Australian states ““should not exempt persons in religious ministry from being required to report knowledge or suspicions formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession.”

So far, only the state of South Australia has changed the laws to require that priests must report any confessions relating to child sexual abuse. That law, which took effect on October 1, would fine priests $10,000 for failing to disclose such information divulged in the confessional.

Under church law, Catholic priests who violate the seal of confession are subject to ex-communication. Canon law states that,  “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”

The Catholic Church of Australia has backed the recommendations from the committee on child sex abuse, but has come out against the recommendation to require priest to breaking of the seal of confession.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference went on the record this summer, expressing “grave concerns” about mandatory reporting from the confessional.

In a letter to Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly Chief Minster Andrew Bar, the bishops wrote that, such a law would “either have no effect on child safety or will actually make children less safe.”

Archbishop of the Tasmanian capital of Hobart Julian Porteous also issued a statement saying that violating the seal of confession would not help uncover abuse.

“By removing the seal, we lose the rare opportunity to point an offender or victim in the direction of the authorities and other assistance,” he said, as quoted by the Australian.

“Any perpetrator who was minded to confess would almost certainly do so anonymously, so no mandatory reporting would be possible,” he wrote.

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