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'We won't break the seal of confession': acting Adelaide Catholic head

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The acting head of the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide says South Australian priests, himself included, will ignore new laws requiring them to break the seal of confession if they hear admissions of child abuse offences.

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Starting in October, religious ministers in South Australia will be required to report admissions of child sexual abuse received in the course of their duties – including via the confessional – or face a $10,000 fine, under an amendment to the Children and Young People (Safety) Act, passed by parliament last year.

But Port Pirie Bishop Greg O’Kelly, who was appointed Administrator of the Archdiocese of Adelaide after a NSW court convicted Phillip Wilson of concealing child sexual abuse, says the law “does not affect us”.

O’Kelly told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning that while there was an “absolute need to do everything we can for child protection”, laws passed by parliament could never change the nature of the Catholic confessional.

“It doesn’t affect us,” said O’Kelly of the new law.

“We have an understanding of the seal of confession that is in the area of the sacred.

“Politicians can change the law, but we can’t change the nature of the confessional, which is a sacred encounter between a penitent and someone seeking forgiveness and a priest representing Christ.

“That does not change by the law of politicians.”

O’Kelly said he had never heard a confession from a pedophile, but that if he did, he would not report it to secular authorities.

“My obligation would be to try to urge that person to go to somewhere where he can get help or whatever, to do whatever he can to change this dreadful behaviour.

“You urge it, you go down on your knees and beg him to but I can’t break the seal of a confession.”

“I can only quote my own experience and I think that of many priests, that they’ve never had a pedophile come along and confess, I’ve never had to confront the situation personally.

“If I did, was confronted that way, I’d have to act the way I’ve just described.”

He said it was important to make schools and institutions safe for children, but that priests would not break the seal of confession.

“I don’t think we can,” he said.

However, he also argued pedophiles would not report their offences to a priest if they thought they would take it to the police.

“We are trying to do whatever we can do to ensure the safety of children,” he said.

“But as I said: can you imagine the situation of a pedophile coming to confession knowing that the priest is going to immediately ring the police?

“(If) the situation is a child coming and saying that he or she has been hurt, the priest will do everything they could to make sure that child went to someone outside the confessional, went to somewhere that was safe, someone that they could talk to.

“A major area of child abuse, of course, is in the family, and we can’t reach into that very well but in our own institutions to make sure all the safeguards are there.”

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