SYDNEY - Australia's Catholic Church is rejecting only one of the recommendations of an official inquiry into institutional child sexual abuse, but it does highlight a significant disagreement that may provoke conflict with governments.
A five-year Royal Commission probe recommended that priests who were told of abuse during private confessionals should be forced to report it to the authorities, and that clerics should face criminal charges if they failed to do so.
But the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference was unmoved. The nation's most senior Catholic body said breaking the seal of confession was "contrary to our faith" and would breach "religious liberty."
"Most confessions are anonymous," said Archbishop Mark Coleridge, president of the bishops conference. "I am a confessor and someone comes to me anonymously and confesses abusing a child without identifying the victim, what am I supposed to do even? And say to the police someone whose name I do not know, who is anonymous, has confessed to abusing a child, the identity of whom I do not know either? Where does that leave us?"
Church leaders said they would explore other proposals put forward by the Royal Commission, including asking the Vatican to relax rules on celibacy in the priesthood. Catholic authorities previously agreed to take part in a compensation scheme, which will give survivors of abuse payments of up to $110,000.
But Phil Nagle of Ballarat, a victim of clergy abuse, said refusing to change the rules around the confessional was an insult.
"They have had every opportunity to tidy up their backyard, as such, and this is the one thing that I think everyone wanted to see change," he said. "I am sure if they put it out there to their own parishioners that they would have liked to have seen this change. All the Catholic Church is doing here is [disrespecting] us and saying, 'We do not care about your law, we are above the law. We are a criminal organization and will continue to operate like one.' "
The commission inquiry found tens of thousands of children had suffered abuse in Australian institutions. The Catholic Church had the most cases.
In October, new laws will come into effect in the state of South Australia that will compel clergy to report abuse. However, church leaders have vowed to ignore the legislation. Other states in Australia are working on similar laws.