Clergy who refuse to report child sexual abuse after hearing a confession could end up facing criminal charges.
The child abuse royal commission wants a new criminal offence of failing to report child sexual abuse in institutions, with no exemption for clergy who learn about the abuse during a religious confession.
It means priests would have to break the seal of confession in institutional child abuse cases, something Sydney’s Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher has likened to bugging the confessional.
The commission says it understands the inviolability of the confessional seal particularly to the Catholic faith but the importance of protecting children from sexual abuse means clergy should not be able to refuse to report child abuse because the information was received during confession.
The inquiry has heard evidence of perpetrators who made a religious confession to sexually abusing children went on to reoffend and seek forgiveness again, the royal commission noted in its wide-ranging report calling for reform of Australia’s criminal justice system.
“We are satisfied 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,” the commission said.
The commission noted the Anglican Church’s doctrine commission has recommended the practice of absolute confidentiality be reconsidered for confessions of serious crimes such as child sexual offences.
The new offence of failing to report abuse in institutions would apply to people in institutions who know, suspect or should have suspected a child is being or has been sexually abused by an adult associated with the institution.
The commission believes it is necessary to impose criminal liability for failure to report in cases where a person should have suspected the abuse.
It said it has heard evidence from a number of senior representatives of institutions effectively denying they had any knowledge or had formed any belief or suspicion of abuse being committed “in circumstances where their denials are very difficult to accept”.
Some witnesses have conceded they should have suspected or they should have reported, it said.
Making it an offence to fail to report where the person should have suspected abuse will also help overcome any conflict between their duty to report and their interest in protecting the institution’s reputation, the report said.
The commission also wants all States and territories to make it a crime to fail to protect a child within an institution from a substantial risk of sexual abuse by an adult associated with the institution.
Its 85 recommendations for reform include broadening the conduct that applies in grooming offences and extending them to include the grooming of a child’s parents or carers.
It also wants the law changed to allow greater use of evidence by multiple victims in relation to a single perpetrator and more joint trials in child abuse matters. AAP