The decision by the Federal Government to set in motion a Royal Commission into allegations of sexual abuse of children has made headlines around the country. As we reported on Tuesday, for the first time in the life of this Parliament, there exists bi-partisan agreement on the necessity for such a wide-ranging investigation. But as the Government approaches the really difficult task of setting the terms for this Royal Commission and choosing the commissioner(s), another issue has arisen. And that is whether the confessional seal of the Catholic Church should be observed, or whether Catholic priests should be forced to report the details of crimes against children, that they have heard during confessional.
Other professions, including doctors and teachers, are subject to mandatory reporting rules. Parents who smack a child in a doctor’s waiting room must be reported by the receptionist who witnesses this. Evidence of parental abuse of a pupil must be reported by their teacher. So the question has been raised whether the confessional can continue to remain a confidential sanctuary where the admission of child abuse is met with an assurance of privacy. Sydney Archbishop George Pell maintains that the seal of the confession is ‘inviolable’.
Attorney-General Nicola Roxon disagrees, describing as ‘abhorrent’ the notion that priests are not required to report this information to the police. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his fellow Liberal Party frontbencher Christopher Pyne, both Catholics, agree that the law should take precedence over church practices in this matter.
Listen to the Attorney-General's comments
We have been warned that this commission will run for years before it has heard the evidence and completed a report into the sexual abuse of children across a range of institutions, over a period of decades. That makes a lot of sense, given the Irish experience where that country’s commission into child abuse, led by Justice Sean Ryan, took nine years to deliver its report, described by the UK Guardian newspaper as the ‘stuff of nightmares’. The Ryan Report found that the Catholic Church had consistently protected its orders with a "culture of self-serving secrecy".
So here we have the issue of secrecy. It has taken far too long to get to the point where a Royal Commission has been called, but better late than never. Now is the opportunity to support those children – many now adults – who suffered at the hands of adults in authority, whether that authority was that of the church, a school or another institution. The law in Australia states that such abuse is illegal and needs to be reported in order to be investigated. Wrongdoers must be charged and, if found guilty, convicted. Since when should any institution be above the law? When Cardinal George Pell states that the confessional is ‘inviolable’ he is automatically placing the ritual of the church above the rights of children and, potentially, the law. This is morally and legally wrong. If we want the Royal Commission to have the scope and success it deserves, it is imperative that those who, in the confessional, admit to child abuse must be reported immediately. Let’s not delude ourselves, this abuse isn't confined to the past. It is still happening today and, for the sake of children whose lives are being ruined, it must be stopped, once and for all.
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