The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – the official independent inquiry in Australia – has recommended that the failure to report child sexual abuse in institutions should be made a criminal offence. And it said that there should be “no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offence granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in connection with a religious confession.”
The recommendations are amongst a sweep of 85 legislative and policy changes proposed in a report Criminal Justice, released by the Commission August 14, “aimed at reforming the Australian criminal justice system in order to provide a fairer response to victims of institutional child sexual abuse.”
In their report, the commissioners say: “Before discussing a criminal offence, we consider it important to make clear that persons who know or suspect that a child is being or has been sexually abused in an institutional context should report this to police – not necessarily as a legal obligation enforced by a criminal offence but because it is moral and ethical to do so.
“Child sexual abuse is a crime and it should be reported to police. There should be no doubt that police are the correct agency to which child sexual abuse should be reported.”
They continue: “We understand the significance of religious confession – in particular, the inviolability of the confessional seal to people of some faiths, particularly the Catholic faith. However, we heard evidence of a number of instances where disclosures of child sexual abuse were made in religious confession, by both victims and perpetrators.”
The report noted that “confession is a forum where Catholic children have disclosed their sexual abuse and where clergy have disclosed their abusive behaviour in order to deal with their own guilt.”
While it has been argued that “any intrusion by the civil law on the practice of religious confession would undermine the principle of freedom of religion,” it is nonetheless a right that is “not absolute,” said the report. The right to practise one’s religious beliefs must accommodate civil society’s obligation to provide for the safety of all and, in particular, children’s safety from sexual abuse.”
Institutions, including religious institutions that care for and provide services to children “must provide an environment where children are safe from sexual abuse,” added the report. “Reporting information relevant to child sexual abuse to the police is critical to ensuring the safety of children.”
The commissioners said their inquiry has shown that “that there is significant risk that perpetrators may continue with their offending if they are not reported to police.” Reporting them “can lead to the prevention of further abuse,” they said. “In relation to religious confessions, we heard evidence that perpetrators who confessed to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again.”
In 2014, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia changed its canon law in a unanimous vote to permit clergy to report child abuse and other serious offences disclosed in the context of a confession.
In the Church of England, the Archbishops’ Council established a working group in 2015 to consider “the Proviso to the Canon of 1603” – the church law that forbids clergy from disclosing information provided in the Confessional.
A year earlier, following an independent review of the Church’s handling of allegations involving priest Robert Waddington, who abused children for more than 50 years, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu said: “If someone tells you a child has been abused, the confession doesn’t seem to me a cloak for hiding that business. How can you hear a confession about somebody abusing a child and the matter must be sealed up and you mustn’t talk about it?”
The inviolability of the seal of the confessional is ancient church law that remains strong within the Roman Catholic Church. Within Anglicanism, the practice of confession, or the sacrament of reconciliation, is more prevalent in the Anglo-Catholic tradition than within evangelical or low church traditions.